Wishing Happy 50th birthday to a dance like Paul Taylor’s Scudorama mightn’t be a good idea. The cake could blow up in your face. You have to be a bit crazy to love this dance. Made the year after Aureole, which lives on in an indestructible springtime, Scudorama cringes and crawls and hides from view. The current revival dates from 2009.
Scudorama’s 1963 premiere at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut, was, by all accounts, disastrous. The score by Clarence Jackson didn’t arrive in time. Neither did the set by Alex Katz: three hanging rows of dark plywood clouds. The eight dancers, including Taylor, performed in silence. Make that seven-and-a-half. Dan Wagoner had torn a muscle in his calf and could manage only the crawling and limping parts. The purgatory that Taylor had intended to suggest became rather too real.
The presence of this weird, grim, at times comical early work on the Paul Taylor Company’s Lincoln Center season may not be coincidental. Scudorama has shadowy links to the big-news birthday kid of 2013, the ballet created one hundred years ago by Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky. Because Jackson’s music was extremely slow in coming, writes Taylor in his devilishly readable memoir, Private Domain, the music that the dancers worked to throughout rehearsals was Le Sacre du Printemps.
The program particulars are prefaced by a quote from Canto III of Dante’s Inferno. Virgil, his guide, tells him that the denizens of this purgatory “are the nearly soulless/ Whose lives concluded neither praise nor blame.” They relive degradation and flabby morality. That’s about it. There’s a moment in which Laura Halzack has fallen after a long solo bout of dancing and lies crumpled on the floor; Jamie Rae Walker and Aileen Roehl, two small blondes in bright yellow leotards and tights, sit beside her like two damaged angels, legs apart, hands drooping. They remind me of women who can’t do serious work until their nail polish dries. They’re commiserating with her in their own way. Or perhaps they’re guarding her, because three prim women in black with little white collars (Michelle Fleet, Parisa Khobdeh, and Heather McGinley) come to stand over Halzack and make fierce, jabbing gestures down at her.
The dancers spend a lot of time slithering along on their bellies—entering, exiting, going nowhere. What’s interesting is that they seem hapless, not fully aware that they’re doomed. When Sean Mahoney arrives in a jacket and trousers he’s surrounded by a litter of bodies and a mysterious heap of something covered with brightly patterned fabric (beach towels cum shrouds). The people begin to stir and scrabble along; one grabs at his ankle. One of the two under the shroud drags the other away on it. He shows no fear. Before long, he has shed his coat and begun to crawl too.
This is not a happy place. At the beginning of Jackson’s score, you hear what could be insects (like those that torment Dante’s morally destitute souls), later there are bird-like sounds. Light piano notes give way to drunken carnival music. Sometimes the “sky” turns lavender (Jennifer Tipton recreated Tom Skelton’s original design), sometimes yellow. At one point, Michael Trusnovec (or was it Mahoney?) enters with Walker, crouched over, squatting on his right shoulder with one leg; she has the other wrapped around his neck. He seems to be wearing a padded yellow mask.
Trusnovec is another recent arrival, but soon he too has stripped to leotard and tights and is getting around like an alligator. Amid the collapsing, the lying in heaps like bodies in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the lashing and swatting the bright towels around, the dancers exhibit both simian behavior and courtly manners. They’re precise in their distortions except when they panic, as Trusnovec briefly does. When the three women in black hold their hands, limp-wristed, in front of them, they could be secretaries remembering their typewriter keys or poodles trained to walk on two legs. These women are almost always in unison— prancing or walking with springy steps or whipping off quick, tricky footwork; sometimes there’s a trace of minstrel-show strutting in their steps (and in the music).
Mahoney and Trusnovec also hold up paws when they confront each other, before whipping themselves into tantrums of desperation. Mahoney yanks Halzack up from where she lies and pulls her through a disheartening duet—bowing to her, slinging her around, jumping over her. They all dance as if their limbs were being torn out of their sockets of their own volition. Mahoney is especially fine in roles that Taylor made for himself early on (the one in Junction as well as in Scudorama); he understands possession.
Those of us who saw Scudorama when it was new wondered what the hell it was and whether this brilliant, disturbing, unpredictable choreographer would destroy himself. We needn’t have worried, of course, but, confronting the dance again, I understand our fears.
Twyla Tharp made her debut in Taylor’s company dancing in Scudorama. I wonder if she ever has nightmares about it.