Carefree Contrast in the Dreamscapes of a Poet
Matthew Murphy for The New York Times
When the lights go down at the end of the first movement of Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade” (1975) or “Mercuric Tidings” (1982) in the Taylor company’s current City Center season, the audience bursts into the kind of applause you usually hear only as a dance ends. Quite right, too: those movements are ebullient, complete experiences, rich in variety.
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Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Matthew Murphy for The New York Times
But then in both pieces the lights go up a moment later on a slow movement that shows some kind of poignancy. At once we know the world onstage has changed, deepened, grown darker and larger. Now we realize that we have far to go before we reach completion. In these two works and in so many others, Mr. Taylor’s is the art of drastic contrasts: of sun and shade, of heroes and insects, of rush and reflectiveness.
And that art is often at its most phenomenal in that “but also” moment of transition. At the end of “Arden Court” (1981), James Samson — who, like other men, has been leaping high — is the last to leave the stage. He jumps, jumps, jumps in quick succession, and then, without skipping a beat, rolls, rolls, rolls; and that’s how it ends.
That switch from high to low, so seamlessly accomplished, is a Taylor characteristic. Mr. Samson does it — so do other Taylor dancers throughout the repertory — as if it were the most natural thing in the world, but most of us watch it with some kind of gasp. Who expects dancers to fall over?
In the final movement of “Esplanade,” one performer after another runs across the stage, takes a flying leap, looks suddenly back over his or her shoulder, and then crashes to the floor. This is breathtaking in a big way, but it keeps happening, and Annmaria Mazzini has a whole solo made of these staggeringly carefree self-contradictions conducted at a pitch of glorious exuberance.
All these works are old friends; their pleasure doesn’t pall. This season the slow movements of “Esplanade” seem to have had a particularly fresh lick of paint. The episode when the tall, beautiful Laura Halzack sits on the floor and seems to contract in sobs hit me (and other more experienced Taylor followers) as never before.
Likewise, the moment when first Eran Bugge and later other women sit and plunge their hands between their legs in what looks like self-lacerating grief: was this always there? It must have been. “Esplanade,” whose spontaneous joy creates so powerful an impression, has always contained sorrow. And if you examined and described all its fleeting human incidents, you’d have enough material to furnish a novel with multiple plots.
But Mr. Taylor’s imagination works less like a novelist’s than like a poet’s. Some of his works are dreamscape dramas composed in extraordinarily free verse. One such is “Scudorama” (1963), which hadn’t been seen onstage for decades until the current revival, which I caught in St. Louis in November and which arrived in New York on Friday: even most Taylor devotees haven’t seen it before.
Its set and costumes are by Alex Katz. The backdrop looks like a shoal of thunderclouds. The costumes cover a whole range of crazy possibilities, not least those of three women in black tights and white ruffs that make them look half like Puritan Sisters (but only half). Blankets and rugs are used; dancers are dragged across the stage on them or secreted under them.
The score, specially created by Clarence Jackson, includes overt references to composers from Stravinsky to Gershwin, as well as the loud blowing of a whistle. The recording being used for the current season, which I assume was made at a live performance in the 1960s, contains a loud cough that somehow seems all part of the fabric.
And neither the music nor the design is as wild as the choreography. Spasms pass through most of the dancers at various points, but so do sequences of strict control. At one moment two of the Puritan Sisters start to wind the third down, round, up and about, as if she were part of a machine. Ms. Halzack (dressed in scarlet tights), her torso bent low, grips her lower thighs with her splayed hands and slowly extends one leg up to the side. (This step recurs verbatim in Merce Cunningham’s very dissimilar 1968 “RainForest” — were both choreographers quoting their alma mater, Martha Graham?) Later the three Puritans do it briskly.
I have seen this work twice now, and am still happily befogged by it. We don’t know whose dream this is or why it covers such a plethora of nightmare chaos. Ms. Halzack and Sean Mahoney are superb in leading roles; Michael Trusnovec (in jacket and tie) and the other performers are all excellent. I think Mr. Taylor went on to give us dreams whose imagination now hits harder, but there is a frenzy here that releases something in these dancers. (Julie Tice, who is having a good season generally, here moves her torso with a weightiness I haven’t seen before.)
One of those greater, later nightmares is “Last Look” (1985), another Taylor collaboration with Mr. Katz. What kind of hell is this? The dancers all start in — and return to — a single pile, but the women are wearing bright kimonos, and the men green jumpsuits that speak of glamour. Mirrors define the space, but on the few occasions that these characters look at their reflections, they’re likely to recoil or to peer in alarm. Donald York’s commissioned score quotes from Ravel’s “Valse” and other works.
A duet for Mr. Trusnovec and Amy Young suggests that each is furtively masturbating. Both look wracked by desire and shame. At one point she lies down and parts her legs invitingly; his immediate reaction is to stamp between her legs in a gesture of rejection. The whole work is steeped in the misery of self-loathing. There is not one movement that should be labeled a formal dance step; that’s true of “Esplanade” too, but there it’s part of the dancers’ naturalness, whereas here everyone seems stunted.
Not all Taylor revivals look so strong. Why has “Promethean Fire,” a knockout until last year, lost its edge? (Not just because Lisa Viola’s reckless nerve is missed in the central duet; the ensembles no longer thrill.) Why is “The Sorcerer’s Sofa” being revived at all? The question of whether this or “Oz” is the silliest and feeblest piece Mr. Taylor has ever made is not one I like to answer. And yet the vitality of (and difference between) Mr. Taylor’s latest two, “Changes” and “Beloved Renegade,” means that this Taylor season is not just about golden oldies. The new works are not outshone.