A retrospective of Paul Taylor Dance at Meany

The program highlights Taylor as a droll observer and as an artist enamored of the relationships between movement and music.
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The program highlights Taylor as a droll observer and as an artist enamored of the relationships between movement and music.

In 1957 Louis Horst, musical adviser and confidante to Martha Graham, wrote perhaps the most famous review of a piece of choreography in American dance history. In the Dance Observer, he commented upon a new work by a young Paul Taylor, one segment of his "7 New Dances" whose entirety had the choreographer, who stood, and a seated female dancer both remain motionless for several minutes. In response, Horst's review consisted of a blank page.

It was as if Taylor had hung out a sign saying, "watch this space." At the time, the modern dance world was a very small one, dominantly a New York City venture. The big names were still the pioneers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, and those who followed in their aesthetic line. The explosions of new expressions and experimentations that marked the 1960s were still several years off, though another young voice of the 50s, Merce Cunnigham, a decade older then Taylor, was also making waves and attracting an enthusiastic following.

Paul Taylor is a big man, and those who saw him perform live before he retired in the mid-1970s remember his powerful presence when bounding across the stage, cradling a female dancer, or opening his arms like a condor's wings. Martha Graham, always enamored of hunky guys, had him in her company from 1955-62, the last effervescence of her great creative period. Though I never saw him perform live with her, his role as Tiresias, the seer in Graham's "Night Journey," was hugely powerful even when seen in a 1957 black and white film of the dance.

One can still identify elements of Graham's movement vocabulary in Taylor's work, especially the earlier pieces. However, he seemed always to have been his own man, forming a group in 1954 at age 24, and making work that initially explored the role that simple movements played in making dances.

The crowd-pleasing program the Paul Taylor Dance Company performed at Meany Hall on Thursday evening, May 1, (through May 3) was a mini-retrospective of his career, from the early lyrical Aureole of 1962, to the newest piece, Troilus and Cressida (reduced) from 2006. Along with 1974's Cloven Kingdom, and Black Tuesday, set to Depression- era songs, and choreographed in 2001, the evening provided a sampler of Taylor's complex career as story-teller, droll observer merrily pricking the balloon of human vanity, and an artist enamored of the relationship between movement and music.

Aureole, for five dancers, is one of the works that put Taylor on the map. From the moment that the dancers skim across the stage to the music of Handel in that distinctive Taylor loping run with arms and heads swinging side to side, you are caught up in the clarity of his vision of how movement can cleanly interpret music. That's what some used to call music visualization, or what we as young dancers called this type of dance -- a "lyrical lovely." There is the romance of freely flowing bodies, the blend of soft and muscular movement, quietness, and speed.

Much has been said of Taylor's use of everyday movement, particularly in works like Aureole - runs, skips, jumps and leaps, simple walks. Young choreographers about this time were beginning to experiment with these fundamentals of dance, but it was Taylor who achieved fame by building upon them to make a distinctive vocabulary of movement, whose quintessential expression is his 1975 masterwork, Esplanade, set to music by J.S. Bach.

What may seem simple in this early work is not. It is difficult and complex, and technically demanding for the performer. On Thursday night, the dancers seemed tentative at first, studiously rendering the performance as the revival it was, rather than inhabiting the movement and making it their own. They got looser in the later sections, but the finest Tayloresque expression was in a solo that the choreographer originally created for himself, a series of thick syrupy movements organically unfolding, and performed most beautifully by Michael Trusnovec.

Black Tuesday made for an interesting closer for the concert, a book-end to Aureole that also interpreted music, but in a very much different way. While Handel was the text for the latter, in this work it is the eight songs and their lyrics that inform the little vignettes danced lovingly and in fine style by 13 of the company's 16 dancers.

Originally choreographed by Taylor for American Ballet Theater (but created on his own company's dancers), the work offers another side of Taylor, a chronicler of the human, more specifically, the American spirit. Using both familiar ("Brother Can You Spare a Dime") and long-forgotten ("There's No Depression In Love") tunes, he fashions brief dance stories of this calamitous time - a pregnant woman abandoned, the formerly flush now down on their luck, and the despair of the forgotten soldiers from World War I, so celebrated by their country just a decade earlier.

The dance is rich in character portrayals and full out movement, a deep vocabulary to be juxtaposed by the viewer to the earlier Aureole of sweeping runs, leaps, and hops. Made to entertain, yet dark with lessons of the bitterness of the time, Black Tuesday is made richer by the elegant set and costumes of Santo Loquasto, and the unobtrusive and effective lighting by the great designer Jennifer Tipton.

Cloven Kingdom is another of Taylor's works that comments upon the human condition, here a social satire reflecting upon the narrow line separating human from beastly behavior. The score by John Herbert McDowell juxtaposes refined Baroque music by Corelli with driving rhythmic percussion by Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller, just as the dance veers back and forth between elegant and primal movements, with dancers dressed in formal evening wear. As the work unfolds, three women don oddly shaped shiny headwear whose reflected light bounces out into the audience, and towards the end, men and women alike don masks.

Viewing this dance after not having seen it in many years, I was struck by the strength of several individual sections, most notably a testosterone-laden men's dance that gave new meaning to the term "hot to trot." Overall though, I was left with the impression that the dance did not quite hang together as the social commentary that Taylor meant it to be. Still, few choreographers approach their subject matter with such an intriguing mix of subtlety and realism, with a dash of abstract mystery - who were the three women in those bizarre shiny hats?

The one misfire of the evening was Taylor's slap-stick Troilus and Cressida (reduced), replete with hapless Trojans, three put-upon cupids, and our clueless hero and heroine. Played so broadly that it would have been at home on the burlesque stage, a work like this has been done many times before and is what often passes for humor in dance. It was the most recently created work on the bill, and seemed a bit like slumming for a choreographer of Taylor's wit and intelligence. But after 50 plus years of fine dance making, who can blame Paul Taylor for wanting to have a bit of raucous fun?


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