Critics regularly describe Paul Taylor as an artist of light and dark, but how about an artist of good and bad? The timeless and indelible, on one side, and the stale and forgettable on the other? The first week of the Taylor troupe’s generous Lincoln Center season, with the populist choreographer designating seats throughout the huge house for $10, swung wildly between these extremes.
Taylor’s response to Bach – a focus this year, with a dance to Bach on every programme – has always been wondrous. In Junction (1961), Esplanade (1975), Musical Offering (1986), Brandenburgs (1988), Cascade (1999) and Promethean Fire (2002), the choreographer emphasises the music’s physicality – the downward swipe of bow on strings – as well as its spirit. Gravity and lightness balance each other. Out of simple principles and materials, superb harmony emerges.
The most famous example is Esplanade, made of walking, galloping, jumping, falling, slipping and sliding, twirling, skipping, crouching, crawling, perching, running and running. It captures something fundamental, in this case about movement: its joy. And yet Esplanade’s structure is unstable. Someone is always coming or going, losing or gaining partners and friends.
In big ways and small, the Bach pieces transcend their visible structures. In one Brandenburg adagio, for example, the great Michael Trusnovec brought a long, uninterrupted phrase that wound through his body to a close by blanketing it in softness like a mute pedal on the piano. The 51-year-old Junction has three men (including the thrillingly visceral Sean Mahoney) fold a woman into a ball and pass her ceremoniously between themselves as they file off stage. Taylor is both poking fun at the majestic histrionics of his early mentor Martha Graham and honouring them with his own plainer mystery.
Where Taylor runs into trouble is with his situation and genre pieces. The conventions of dance and society that these pieces tweak have to be made to matter, but this did not happen in the premieres. Village stoning gained no currency from To Make Crops Grow, yet another Taylor work on the theme of outsider and mob, this time via Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery”. And pastoral romance seemed just as hokey after Perpetual Dawn as before. When a topic or genre is dusty, tone is particularly important, but these premieres were buried in the generic and commonplace.
At the age of 82, Taylor owes us nothing. He has already immeasurably improved our lives. But if he is to go on making dances, he might as well surprise himself – and us in to the bargain. He could organise a whole work around a single strange gesture. Early in the Bach piece Cascade, the dancers, down on their knees, raise an arm with palm facing out to the audience. The gesture resembles nothing from daily life – not waving or stretching. At once primitive and stylised like so many of Taylor’s most striking moves, the raised arm is both symbol and fragment of dance, and worth a whole night of Perpetual Dawns.
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