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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 6, 2013
Category: review

Paul Taylor Wows New York Audiences

By Rachel Straus

Michael Trusnovec in "Sacre du Printemps." Photo: Paul B. Goode

M. Trusnovec in “Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal).” Photo: Paul B. Goode

NEW YORK–Paul Taylor Dance Company’s second season at the former New York State Theater (March 5 to 24) exceeded expectations. With 21 works performed in three weeks by just 16 dancers, it would be only human for the troupe to have shown signs of fatigue. But it never did, and the audience’s enthusiastic response, both in strong ticket sales and their standing ovation when Taylor took his end- of-show bows, only further confirmed the resiliency of these dancers.

The notion of a company entirely in the service of one choreographer’s vision is a 20th- century phenomenon. It began in the U.S. with Denishawn (i.e. Ruth St. Denis and her sub-lieutenant Ted Shawn) who inspired the companies of Martha Graham and José Limón. Taylor represents the third generation of the American modern dance tree. He is 82 years old. And like Merce  Cunningham, who chose to fold his company two years following his death, at age 90, Taylor and his board are likely in the process of developing a post-Taylor scenario. It’s all behind  closed doors, of course, but it’s a safe assumption that lead dancer Michael Trusnovec is part of it. He not only assists in rehearsals, he embodies the Taylor style with every fiber of his being.

Take Beloved Renegade, made for Trusnovec and Laura Halzack and performed by them thrice this season. (I saw it March 20.) The 2008 work, set to Poulenc’s Gloria, pays homage to Walt Whitman, and more subtly to Trusnovec, who portrays the American transcendentalist poet  near the end of his life. Trusnovec could also represent Taylor the choreographer, standing apart from the 14-member cast. As Whitman did during the Civil War, he witnesses soldiers on their last legs. He performs a sensual duet amid children playing among their less playful chaperone. As he dances, Trusnovec appears to evolve, energetically, from youth to old age. In the end he slowly spirals to the floor as he surrenders to his muse Halzack, whom we come to understand is the angel of his death.

While the cast whirls across the stage in cinematic-like montages, Trusnovec and Halzack interact in slow motion. Standing on one leg, they pivot their bodies in 360-degree rotations. They don’t look like people as much as archetypes; they certainly don’t look like ballet dancers. Their center of gravity is too low, they are barefoot, and they are not privileging one part of the body (i.e., the legs). As they pivot slowly in space, their personas undergo tiny shifts. First we perceive them as lovers, then demi-gods in Grecian poses, then she as the muse of his conjuring. She always comes and goes without others noticing her. With the imperceptible lifting and lowering of their heels, Trusnovec and Halzack transform the normal sense of time (I can’t say if their duets lasted ten minutes or two). This same experience comes in sleep, or perhaps when one is nearing death.

As for the Taylor style, it’s not enough to say that it’s statuesque as well as athletic; that it’s full of slicing arms and stag leap jumps. There is an also an inert quality to it, which rather than being frustrating (dance is supposed to move) is fascinating. It’s a quality best exemplified in Taylor’s 1980 Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Set to Stravinsky’s famous score, it has been made to resemble a poorly fashioned cartoon whose pictures don’t flow together. The cast represents stock characters. There is The Crook and His Mistress. She (Amy Young) sits in front of her mirror, waiting for him (Robert Kleinendorst) to bestow upon her stolen jewels. He wields a cardboard knife and is always in a frozen mid run, like an outline of a dead man on a sidewalk. The Crook steals the baby (a Kmart-esque plastic doll) from The Girl (Halzack). The Mistress’s Private Eye (Trusnovec) takes the baby back, but, like all film noir, things do not end well. One by one the cast is humorously cut down, like so many film negatives falling to the cutting-room floor. The only person left is The Girl. Her baby dead, she becomes the crazed Maenad, or, if one is being historically minded, she becomes the Sacrificial Virgin from Vaslav Nijinsky’s original 1913 Sacre. (Halzack’s solo occurs in same final movement of the score as the Virgin’s solo).

Like the Sacrificial Virgin, Halzack dances herself to death. At this point, the heretofore stilted quality of movement ceases. Halzack hurls herself through space. She takes Taylor’s previously turgid shapes (the static run, the two-dimensional walks, the silent screen dramatic gestures) and brings them into furious motion. She careens from one side of the stage to another without  a pause, with barely time for a breath. Halzack’s solo, which ends with her collapsed on the floor, calls to mind Jacques Riviere’s 1913 review of Nijinsky’s lost masterpiece: “the parts are set before us completely raw, without anything that will aid in their digestion; everything is open, intact, clear and coarse.”

Perpetual Dawn, the season’s premiere, set to recorded excerpts from Johann David Heinichen’s Dresden Concerti, it is not a notable Taylor work (it’s also his 138th). The layers of representation that we have come to expect, where one minute pretty couples are prancing and the next  minute they are destroying each other, are not here. In interviews, Taylor is frank about making works that don’t succeed. He’s not apologetic about it; he sees them as part of the working life  of an artist, even if they ultimately land on the cutting room floor.

Perpetual Dawn, performed four times this season, came sandwiched between more inspired works, such as Promethean Fire and Brandenburgs. The new piece may not be a keeper, but its title may be code for Taylor’s wish to make works infinitely, to be a dance maker forever.

Copyright © 2013, Musical America

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