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Still Thriving

Paul Taylor Dance Company / City Center, NYC / February 24 – March 14, 2010

Paul Taylor’s Also Playing–one of the pair of new dances featured in his company’s February 24 – March 14 season at City Center–is “dedicated to all Vaudevillians, especially those who went on no matter what.” The man knows what he’s talking about. In 1974, Taylor, himself a unique and fabulous dancer, collapsed on stage from chronic illness and exhaustion, ending his performing career. A year later, however, he created Esplanade, a work of sheer perfection that has become his signature piece. This through-dark-to-light scenario, with its insistence on persevering no matter what, is an emblem of Taylor’s artistic career and the story of his company as well. Despite the grueling work demanded of them and the chronic specter of inadequate funding, both choreographer and company have managed to survive–and triumph.

Also Playing is a mixture of Taylor’s love for old time entertainment and gentle fun at its expense. It’s set to a medley of excerpts from Donizettii’s Dom Sébastien and L’assedio di Calais. (You know these ebullient, catchy tunes, believe me.) Santo Loquasto has created a ornate black-and-white proscenium for the occasion and Jennifer Tipton has lighted its “curtain” in scarlet, a witty economy. Said curtain rises on the first of 15 short “acts,” each of which is a take on the generic fodder for yesteryear’s vaudeville revues.

The opener is a girlish quintet, all tutued up, who have apparently reached the advanced-beginner stage of their ballet training. They’re cavaliered (I use the word advisedly) by a pair of dangerously underqualified men who are clearly happier in the following soft-shoe routine.
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Jeffrey Smith hoofing it among the flowers, in Paul Taylor’s Also Playing

Photo: Tom Caravaglia

Next comes a tap number lead by a guy gotten up as a dancing horse with a tail and mane subjected to frequent perms. Then there’s an old-fashioned waltz–for a soldier sporting exaggerated epaulets and a lady in an extravagantly beruffled skirt. Balanchine has presented their Platonic version on several occasions.

Have I mentioned that, throughout all the show’s numbers, we can glimpse the “artistes” behind the scenes, so to speak, making quick crossovers from one side of the stage to the other for their next entrance and frenetically quick changes for their next role? We’re allowed to see this through the translucent backdrop and a murky upstage corner representing the wings of the limelighted performance space. Call it the layered look, if you will, and think of the scene as choreographed by an inordinately deft traffic cop. Think again and discover that Taylor is commenting not only on the vaudevillians’ life in the theater but also on that of his company.

The show goes on with a strip teaser (Eran Bugge), swishing her rump at her audience and a dying swan, pointe shoes and all (Julie Tice), accompanied by three mourners in inky veils and black corsets. Laughably inept, their efforts are nevertheless touchingly sweet and earnest. The fast-paced bill continues with an apache duet in which the woman (Michelle Fleet) gives as good as she gets (and in high heels too); a gypsy trio with Parisa Khobdeh at its heart; a garland dance with many a dropped petal; an Egyptian duet in which the two players move in the profiled stance Taylor used so spectacularly in his Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal); a female bullfighter (Annmaria Mazzini) taunting three cowardly bulls with her gloriously sleazy red satin cape; and, by way of a finale, a parade of people in white practice clothes (Onward, dancers!) led by an exhilarated woman (the vivacious Fleet) waving an American flag.
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Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Taylor’s Also Playing

Photo: Tom Caravaglia

A stagehand, Robert Kleinendorst, has been present throughout, wielding his broom to sweep away the fallout (you’d be surprised) from each act and hoofing a little on the sidelines as he watches. Towards the end of the show, he gets his big chance–with a captivating solo in which he and his sweeping tool, a kind of fifth limb, dance full-out with utter aplomb.

Brief Encounters, the other Taylor work new this season, may be a first for the choreographer. As haunting as a fragrance, it’s suffused with romantic atmosphere and keen–often touching–observations about sexual propositions, yet it’s laced with Taylor’s brand of crass jokery. Rarely, if ever, has Taylor combined these two familiar modes of his in a single piece. The two still make awkward bedfellows but, with ongoing performance and perhaps some second thoughts, they–like man and wife in an arranged marriage–may mesh. As for me, I loved the dance at first sight.
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Julie Tice and Michelle Fleet in Paul Taylor’s Brief Encounters

Photo: Tom Caravaglia

Set to Debussy’s Le Coin des Enfants (Children’s Corner), Brief Encounters is performed in front of a dark, bronze-tinted curtain by Santo Loquasto, which depicts successive arches over a corridor leading to an unknown destination. The 11 dancers are clad (barely) by Loquasto in the briefest (hence the pun of the title) of black bikini bottoms and, where called for, bras. Still, their primary “costume” is the glow of their exposed, tautly muscled flesh under James F. Ingalls’s inspired lighting.

Despite the title of the music, Taylor’s piece is definitely PG but, like the celebrated film from which the dance co-opts its name, its erotic content remains prelapsarian. At first the dancers circle, stealing looks at each other as possible sexual partners. But even the occasional touch–tender palm to dancer-taut buttock–has no sequel; the group vanishes as quickly as a fleeting memory. (All the encounters in this piece are, as the title promises, tantalizingly brief and the more suggestive for it.)

Next we see a melancholy man (the wonderful James Samson, consummately full-bodied but eternally innocent) who hasn’t yet defined what he desires, though he wants something passionately and is frustrated by not finding it. He might be The Sleeping Beauty‘s Prince Désiré, before the Lilac Fairy sets him up with Aurora.

One by one, a number of women, each gorgeous in a different way, approach him but then retreat. Finally he’s surrounded by a quartet of men, who eye him intently; they too withdraw, seemingly because of his failure to respond. Here Taylor is describing–with the choreographic equivalent of perfect pitch–the misery of the young person who is unsure of himself as a potential lover, unsure even of his sexual identity.

Two trios–two men with a single woman, two women with a sole man–dance simultaneously until one person drops out of each group, leaving a male pair and a female pair. This initiates the most recent step in Taylor’s slow progress toward allowing himself to depict same-sex couples onstage, celebrating the love (and lust) that can now finally speak its name. Later in the piece, the choreographer throws reticence to the winds and links two men in a series of handsome acrobatic postures, making them look like copulating gods.
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Sean Mahoney and Francisco Graciano in Paul Taylor’s Brief Encounters

Photo: Tom Caravaglia

Amy Young dances narcissistically with a hand mirror, adoring her own image, even when a suitor arrives to partner her. When he, very sensibly, draws back, she’s disappointed by her reflection and hurls her looking glass away.

Next we ogle a five-woman harem, which . . . well, what do you imagine those multiple wives did when there was only one sultan available to satisfy their hunger? The women run off in a line and a line of eager men follows them, leaving the coolly beautiful Michael Trusnovec–Taylor’s muse–behind. A discontent beauty played by Julie Tice joins him, but another man intrudes to threaten Trusnovec with a gleaming dagger, in the mode of would-be exotic silent films.

And so it goes, with the theme of thwarted love depicted in terms that range from profound appeals to your empathy to absurd slapstick. Brief Encounters is a bagatelle, to be sure, but it reminds you of the times, not restricted to your adolescence, when you couldn’t make love work.

© 2010 Tobi Tobias

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