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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 9, 2012
Category: review

A Triumphant Turn for Paul Taylor

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK — The Paul Dance Company’s first season at Lincoln Center (March 14-April 1) was a joyful occasion, not just because the half-century-old company performed to full houses for three weeks, but because it raised the profile of American modern dance in general. In the past, the former New York State Theater, a.k.a. the house of Balanchine (a preferable designation to the house of Koch, for whom it is now named), hasn’t been known as a center for the artform. The Lincoln Center Festival does tend to put its contemporary dance companies there in the summer, but usually they are foreign troupes in short runs. The Mark Morris Dance Company is also an occasional presence there, as a collaborator with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra during the summer.

Taylor couldn’t afford a live orchestra and so relied on recorded music to back his 22 works, from Handel to the St. Louis Melody Museum band machines. This did not please New York’s union musicians, many of whom have occupied the pit of the State Theater, and so a small number showed up opening night to protest.

Although this was his company’s first time in the house of Balanchine, Taylor himself has a connection to the choreographer. In 1959, he performed in Balanchine’s Episodes as a guest artist and was subsequently invited into Balanchine’s company (he declined). In 1962, Taylor’s life as a dancer for others ended with Aureole, a sunny work danced to Handel’s music, which launched his full-time career as a choreographer. It was Aureole that opened the PTDC season. The house was sold out, thanks to the 1962-priced tickets ($3.50). Taylor, now 81, must have been pleased; having bravely said “No” to Balanchine and “No” to ballet, here he was in Balanchine’s house half a century later, showing off his own acclaimed modern dance company.

Having attended three programs, I will focus here on the last, April 1, because it best showcased Taylor’s dark side. Cloven Kingdom (1976), House of Joy (2012), Big Bertha (1970), and Piazzolla Caldera (1997) offered, respectively, visions of grotesque high society, prostitutes and their motley clientele, family incest, and tango as a sexual hunger game. To the uninitiated, Taylor’s works can appear perfectly benign, except in brief moments, when the performers’ cruel interactions cause consternation. These instances, however, can also come across as some perplexing bit of modern dance, vaudeville hokum or costume madness.

Cloven Kingdom 2009

In fact, a sinister point-of-view is at work. Take Cloven Kingdom. A dozen dancers in tuxedos and gowns perform to Corelli’s elegant baroque score. The women pose with hauteur — one arm draped over a shoulder, as though holding on to a mink stole. The men move in a single file, leaning into their hip every third step—like arrogant dandies with time to kill. But then Michelle Fleet and her fellow female dancers hunch their shoulders and walk backwards like apes, as Corelli’s music is interrupted by Malloy Miller and Henry Cowell’s surreal percussion.

The women’s glittering earrings are supplemented by mirrored headdresses, some of which look like football helmets. Then three men sit in a circle, pounding their hands into their fists as another man turns like a top as if his life depended on it. Throughout, dancers fly and swoop across the stage in explosive leaps and gracefully turning waltzing combinations, their arms triumphantly held aloft, like athletes at the finishing line. But wait, here is a duo simulating chair sex — it’s a fleeting moment, but unquestionably down and dirty.

Like the conservative policies of David H. Koch, who gave $100M to refurbish the State Theater and who espouses doing away with minimum wage and Social Security, Cloven Kingdom traffics in the low side of the high life, the brutality of the bounteous. The darkness behind Big Bertha is far less subtle. Although set in the 1950s, its historic references date to the eve of World War I and Big Bertha — the largest gun made by the Germans. This human howitzer, in Taylor’s imagination, becomes a circus mannequin that destroys the members of a family, one by one. Amy Young performed the title role, dressed as a music hall travesty dancer and sporting enormous fake tits, military trousers, and red boots. When a coin is fed into a slot (her mouth), it activates tinny- sounding band music and mechanical movements. Bertha casts a spell over Mr. B (Michael Trusnovec). He transforms into a human drone operated by Bertha. Ultimately, Mr. B’s goodness is expunged. First he slaps his wife (Michelle Fleet). Then he rapes his daughter (Eran Bugge). When he drags her forward for the last time, her torso is a bloody mess, as though a gun has ripped open her insides.

Big Bertha with Michael Trusnovec and Amy Young

In his 14th season with the company, Trusnovec has become the consummate Taylor dancer. His looks are perfect Norman Rockwell Americana: blond, upright, pleasant-faced. In Big Bertha and other works, Trusnovec’s character flips on a dime; he makes the transformation utterly believable. His exponentially growing acting skills testify to Taylor’s passion for dancing stories, instead of merely performing an array of beautifully honed steps. In fact Taylor’s dancers never seem to be dancing as much as moving through a world in upheaval. They rip across the stage, crash into the floor, bench press out of upside-down lifts, and ricochet against each others’ bodies. They also cradle, caress and gaze at each other like lovers.

Throughout his prodigious career, Taylor has showed why modern dance matters. His choreography reflects a kaleidoscope of dreams; it is a testament to the Romantic, Hobbesian, and Faustian bargains humans make in the modern world.

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