Paul Taylor Dance Company

I decided to do something a little different tonight and go watch the Paul Taylor Dance Company in a triple bill of Company B, his new work Phantasmagoria, and Promethean Fire. Last year I went to a Paul Taylor Dance Company performance for the first time and so enjoyed the experience that I had high hopes when I took my seat at the City Center tonight and the lights dimmed. I was not disappointed.

Company B is one of Taylor's most well-known works, a dance set to a medley of Andrews Sisters songs. It's become popular among ballet companies (both the ABT and the Miami City Ballet have it in their repertoire), and its appeal is easy and direct. The Andrews Sisters songs are catchy and nostalgic, and deliberately evoke the WWII era. I have no prior experience with Company B, so I might sound ignorant when writing about it, but what I observed was a study about the impermanence of human bonds, especially during war-time. Men and women flirt, they dance together, they might even fall in love, but in the end they go their separate ways. Sometimes the woman wants more than the man, sometimes the man desires more than the woman. But as the men go off to war, the women somehow have to go on with their lives. The men, after all, might never come back. In "Rum and Coca Cola" the men lust after a woman, but she is independent, and cannot be bothered. She flirts with them, but is ultimately unreachable. The saddest section of Company B is the haunting duet "There Will Never Be Another You," in which a man and a woman circle around each other, rarely actually making contact, until the very end. Just as they start to dance, the song is over, the man leaves, and the woman is left alone, center stage. The audience gasped, as if to say, "This is no longer fun and cute anymore." The opening song "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" is refrained, except this time, the dancing and flirting no longer seems as fun and harmless. At the end of the song, the dancers wander off the stage to all four corners. It was a melancholy end to what had started out as a sunny, funny trip down memory lane.

Phantasmagoria is the new piece from Paul Taylor this year (he generally brings two new dances to City Center every year). It's set to a medley of "anonymous Renaissance composers" and seems to be one of those pieces choreographers occasionally like to indulge in where the point seems to be, "See? My dancers can do everything." And he meant everything. There was Renaissance-era folk dancing, there was an "East Indian Adam and Eve," there was a Byzantine nun playing with Eve's stuffed snake (yes the nun was sexually aroused by the snake), there was Irish step dancing, a Chaplin-esque drunk man lurching about the stage, and most weirdly, three "Isadorables" dancing in the approximate style of Isadora Duncan. It was all played for laughs, and meant to be amusing, the audience duly laughed, but I thought it was a bunch of appetizers instead of a full-course meal, and it left me strangely unsatisfied. At times I thought I was watching a string of vaudeville acts. I wanted Taylor to expand on some intriguing ideas, but before I knew it, poof! New dance! New style! For instance, his "Isadorables" dance was so charming that I now would love to see him do an entire dance based on the style of Isadora Duncan. Phantasmagoria is a dance where there are good ideas that are never fully developed. I liked last year's "new piece," Brief Encounter, much better.

The evening ended with a bang with Promeathean Fire. I think this was the piece most of the audience had been dying to see. From the opening chords of Stokowski's orchestrations of Bach's Tocata & Fugue in D minor (so un-HIP, yet so addictive in the lushness of sound), I thought, how DRAMATIC! Promethean Fire has some of the most striking images I've seen in modern dance. The dancers run, leap, pile on top of each other almost non-stop, but at the same time they constantly create an almost sculptural tableau. Whereas in Company B Paul Taylor seemed to emphasize how light and breakable most human bonds are, I saw Promethean Fire as a statement about the resilience of the collective human spirit. The dancers lie on the floor in a fetal position, only to rise up again and dance. Women cradle themselves in the mens' arms, and the men are strong enough to hold them. At one point, bodies pile on top of each other like corpses, but then a light shines on the bodies, and a man and a woman rise up and dance a lovely, almost soothing duet to Bach's Prelude. Annmaria Mazzini and Michael Trusnovec were the central couple, and I don't know much about modern dance technique but I do know that they both seemed like incredibly strong dancers. One memory that sticks in my head is the image of Mazzini wrapping herself around Trusnovec's neck and shoulders in a complete circle, and the eery stillness of Trusnovec as he held his partner in what must have been an extremely difficult position. Another gasp-inducing moment was when Mazzini literally threw herself backwards towards Trusnovec, who caught her perfectly. The finale I found incredibly life-affirming, and the audience went nuts. They kept clapping until Paul Taylor himself came out for a curtain call, and I was struck by how handsome and dapper he looked. He's 81 but looks 20, even 30 years younger, and still carries himself with the elegance of a dancer (he was an acclaimed dancer with the Martha Graham Company).

A word about the dancers of the company: WOW! They are absolutely gorgeous dancers, all 16 of them. They are incredibly versatile, and can master any style and make it look utterly natural. And how beautifully they run! I remember reading about Galina Ulanova being much-praised for her running in Romeo and Juliet. I understand that it's very difficult for trained dancers to pull off "natural" moves like running and walking, because they've trained their whole lives to move in a stylized, somewhat exaggerated fashion. I saw this with my very own eyes in a performance of Rubies at the NYCB a few years ago -- at one point in the ballet, Balanchine has the male dancers jog around the stage. The elegant ballet dancers grimly hiked up their elbows and started pounding around the stage and it was so awkward and unnatural. Paul Taylor has his dancers contort their bodies, throw themselves onstage (literally), but my favorite moments are when they are doing "everyday" moves like running, skipping, jukebox dancing. What a great group of dancers he has.

While I was on my way out I heard a little girl ask her father, "Why was the audience so loud at the end?" The father said, "Well, because I think they really liked what they saw and they were happy." The girl asked, "Well, were the dancers happy?" (I love little kid questions like this.) The father paused, and then said, "Yes, I think the dancers were very happy."


  1. Hi, Ivy,

    Many thanks for your excellent review of the Paul Taylor program. Glad you enjoyed it. You have to get used to the fact that Taylor's repertory is vast, and his range even more vast, from the sublimely beautiful to the silly trivial, from social commentary to emotionally moving. It's inevitable that you won't like everything, but his genius makes it worth putting up with a few pieces we don't care for.


  2. Hi Bill,
    I noticed what range Taylor demands of his dancers. In Company B they have to look like the girls and boys next door who can dance. In Promethean Fire they seem almost mythical and unrecognizable from their earlier incarnations in the evening. I am thinking of catching another Paul Taylor performance before they leave again, maybe this Saturday.

    I also wondered why Taylor hasn't done more Broadway. His dances are so accessible to people who don't know much about modern dance (like me). He could probably pull a Twayla Tharp and be a huge hit on Broadway.

  3. Hi Ivy! I was there, too! I am not as into dance as I am into opera and theatre, so your review was very helpful to me. I enjoyed the variety of the evening very much and it was my first time at Paul Taylor, ever. :)

  4. The Paul Taylor Dance Company is so unique, so refreshingly diversified and so athletic that they are a wonder to watch. They make emotions run deep and the expressive nature of the dancers does honor to Mr. Taylor's choreography. To think only 16 dancers make up this company is in itself astounding. One moment they look like they are a single living organism and the next they display their unique independent spirit. Mr. Taylor's gift for choreography isn't his only talent...his uncanny ability to select dancers who display such diversified athleticism, technique, grace and emotion may be an even greater reflection of his wondrous talent. They are a joy to watch.


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