The difference between good Paul Taylor and bad – both amply represented in this wildly uneven season (until March 30) – lies not in the work’s premise but in where the choreographer takes it. His poetry of common sense may ensure the pieces their wide appeal but does not guarantee profundity or protect against banality.
Like all his works, the great ones begin with connections so obvious they probably have not occurred to you. Mercuric Tidings and Arden Court are about human grandeur, of course, because they are to grand symphonies, though Taylor’s notion of magnificence is decidedly down to earth. In Arden Court the dancers opened their chests and stretched their limbs in sturdy tilts that pointed from one wing to the other. They traversed the broad stage in a few jubilant strides. The men helped each other into handstand Xs as if the circle framing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man were turning.
Also uncannily straightforward is the use to which Arden Court puts negative space. The statuesque Sean Mahoney raised a leg in arabesque under which Aileen Roehl ducked like a tot through a turnstile. Rare for pas de deux, the Arden Court duets describe romantic disparity – how one person plays the imp so her beloved can float on clouds of dignity, how “compatibility” often just means filling another’s crawl spaces with your baggage.
The awful dances – by my count, six repertory pieces this season and one premiere – also begin with simple premises, but get mired in them. Stupid and weary from the title forward, the recent American Dreamer amounted to exactly that: dancers sleepwalking through rehearsals to Stephen Foster Americana. Is Taylor trying to tell us something about his own disposition in the studio lately? At 83 he has a right to be tired.
The second premiere also associated dancing with exhaustion, but it had something to say. Marathon Cadenzas, to Looney Tunes jazz, takes place at one of those 1930s dance contests that could shuffle along for months, until the participants were half-dead. The Taylor troupers crashed over themselves like a human wave as they staggered around the stage in a derby. Later, the brilliant Michael Trusnovec seemed to drown on land. Marathon Cadenzas presented in precise, physical terms the shared exigencies of living and dancing: how either we want to stop but have to keep on or want to continue but have to stop.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company announced last week that, starting next year, it will expand its roster to include other seminal American choreographers, such as José Limon, Doris Humphrey and Twyla Tharp. Henceforth its name would be Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. The reconfiguration is a gift both to these choreographers without companies and to Taylor. The longevity of his three or four dozen great works depends not only on their preservation but also on their standing among equals, not slumming with the dumb imposters Taylor has also produced.