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August 26, 2003

Not necessarily 9/11

Even though I receive complimentary press tickets to most of the shows I want to see, I still get a huge kick out of free performances, especially when they're outside. I love the uncomplicated carnival atmosphere, the feeling that everybody came to play. Of course it helps that in New York, you often get to see fairly famous people for free, meaning that the crowds are staggeringly large--but it's still fun as long as the weather is nice, and sometimes even when it's not.

I don't know how hot it was when I went to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park a couple of days before I left for Maine (I was too scared to check), but it definitely wasn't balmy, and I didn't care, at least not too terribly much, since you can never see the Taylor company often enough, hot or not. I was particularly interested in their appearance at Lincoln Center Out of Doors because they were dancing Promethean Fire, a new work that had its New York premiere in March, and I was curious to see how it would hold up on a third viewing (I also saw an incomplete runthrough last year at Taylor's downtown studio).

As soon as I got home, I looked up what I'd written about Promethean Fire in the Washington Post back in March:

Taylor must have been in one of his apocalyptic moods when he made this jolting piece, set to three of Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcriptions of Bach organ music. The first one, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, was used in "Fantasia," which Taylor claims was his inspiration. Maybe, but nothing in "Fantasia" is remotely as hair-raising as the final tableau of the first section, in which the dancers pile up in the middle of the stage, looking for all the world like a heap of corpses, out of which Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola emerge to dance a stunned pas de deux.

At the same time that Taylor claimed Fantasia was his inspiration, he specifically denied having had 9/11 in mind when making Promethean Fire, and I took him at his word. Like George Balanchine, he's very careful about disclosing the "secret meanings" of his dances--he wants you to think about what's happening on stage, not in your head. Nor was I inclined to suspect him of being coy.

Yet as I watched Promethean Fire under the stars at Lincoln Center, with low-flying jets gliding into LaGuardia Airport not so very far above my head, I started to have my doubts. It's true that Taylor has always been drawn to the unspecifically apocalyptic (this, after all, is a man who once made a dance called Last Look). But as I watched the male dancers hoisting women over their heads in positions eerily evocative of flight, after which the whole ensemble crumpled into that terrifying center-stage heap, I found I couldn't simply write off Promethean Fire as a piece of pure abstraction.

Once the applause had died down, I turned to the friend I'd brought with me.

"Paul says this isn't about 9/11," I told her.

"Yeah, right," she replied.

Does it matter? Not a bit. A plotless dance is about what you think it's about while you're watching it. The next time, it might be about something completely different. What Paul Taylor was thinking about when he made Promethean Fire is his business, to be disclosed if and only if he chooses to spill the beans. I admire his refusal to give his viewers an easy escape path to equally easy meanings.

But...is Promethean Fire about 9/11? Your guess is--literally--as good as mine.

Posted August 26, 2003 12:04 PM

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