Paul Taylor Dance Company at the City Center—Food for Thought: …Byzantium, De Sueños and Arden Court
There are enough people who are Paul Taylor supporters that I don’t feel I need to throw myself into the ring just for the sake of safety in numbers. I can fully appreciate his dancer’s pristine technique, his keen eye for flawless presentation and seamless transitions, his undeniable innovation and daring and the obvious thought and care that he so painstakingly infuses into each of his works. The disconnect, for me, then, is not one of execution, but of personal taste—and as we all know, taste varies.
In the past works that I have seen, there is nothing that stirs in me that visceral internal furnace that signals the ignition of something explosive—something that resonates with the core of my being and awakens the dormant morsels of past experience. My eyes have feasted, but I am left feeling hollow. While his work has great substance, his particular flavors haven’t excited my palate and nourished my hunger in a way that has felt satisfying…until now.
At New York’s City Center, in an evening of three works pulled from an extensive repertoire, the company presented a trio which could not have been more diverse: …Byzantium, De Sueños and Arden Court. The first and the third served as anchors and points of contrast for my gradual evolution into a greater appreciation for this American master, but its culmination lies with De Sueños.
Arden Court and …Byzantium showcase PTDC’s dancer’s versatility, agility and sharp understanding of the human form, and its ability to transform. Set to Edgar Varèse’s music, discordant almost to the point of grating (fitting, given the subject matter of the piece) …Byzantium leads the audience through an apocalyptic view of the demise of an empire. Juxtaposing near simian-like movement and increasing freneticism with the controlled grace and über-courtliness of a quartet of jewel-toned oligarchs, Taylor portrays a grim view of a civilization’s demise in the face of the people versus the elite. While I found the quartet work tedious (as I suppose it should be, given its overall role), the simplicity and cohesion of their movement contrasted appropriately with the more crude, visceral and gestural ensemble work. Not a favorite of mine, but certainly accomplishes its goal with a masterly understanding of juxtaposition and a fresh eye for a heretofore unresolved dilemma—unrest and uprising.
In a nod to Taylor’s musical love affair with Baroque composers, Arden Court paints a cheeky, playful picture of the airs, couplings and entanglements of courtship and courtly life. Flying through the air with an effortless ease and grace that belies the harsh reality of dating and mating, Taylor’s dancers simultaneously give us hope for the variety of pairings and combinations possible and impishly reject one another as a reminder that appearances can be deceiving. Amy Young was particularly breathtaking, displaying in her movements and mannerisms and an innate understanding of the combination of art and artifice inherent in matters of the heart.
Sandwiched between a piece whose technical prowess left me cold, and one whose literal and physical perceptiveness speaks to a thorough and graceful understanding of human nature, De Sueños provided the passion, depth and intrigue I have been yearning for. The curtain rises on an eerily enchanting set, with shimmering strands of black seaweed dangling from the ceiling in front of a backdrop of mesmerizing blue. The scene opens with an effervescent ingénue and quickly devolves into a fluid cultural montage of scenes both bleak and celebratory, showcasing virginal processions, campy transvestites, religious rituals and representational icons.
The success of this piece rests on the masterful, subtle juxtapositions between the connectivity of each expertly placed, well-researched footfall and the tacit cultural idiosyncrasies they conjure. In a pivotal moment during this ethereal dream-world, girls in flowing white dresses process along the back wall, crawling on their knees, arms outstretched to some deity or pilgrimage, unaware of the fanciful duet between a shining, golden “Mary” figure, played by the incomparable Laura Halzack—whose graceful, supernatural slow-motion contortionism all but transfixed the audience with a mystic sense of awe—and a grim skeleton in gentleman’s garb. A kind of suave, Charlie Chaplin of the underworld, this skeletor moves with surprising playfulness and laissez-faire languidity, his fluidity and cordiality a reminder that entrance into his abode is inevitable, and therefore, does not necessitate a chase or trickery—he simply must exist in strict counterpoint to his golden foil. His presence in the following scenes looms larger and larger, until, at the culmination of a circular, ritualistic dance vacillating between celebratory and terrorizing, all characters exchange roles of pious and sinful, innocent and bloodthirsty, inclusive and excommunicative—delicately demonstrating the tenuous balance that exists in most religions, but is acutely present in Spanish and Mexican cultures, whose staunch Christianity takes on a near oppressive force of rituals, rules and expectations, all tenderly woven into the fabric of everyday life. Both captivating and entertaining, challenging and thought-provoking, De Sueños is finally a Taylor piece I can swallow.
Perhaps your kinesthetic gastronomy is better suited to the PTDC menu than mine. However, if you have yet to witness his most famous dishes, or feel as I do, I encourage you to continue to seek out new works, not only of Paul Taylor’s, but also of companies whose work may not have filled you up in the past, if for no other reason that to attempt to surprise yourself and continue to expand your palate. I plan to.