Pushing The Envelope

Paul Taylor Dance Company At The Lensic

Sara Hiatt
4 min read
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Paul Taylor doesn't believe in dance as we know it. The world-famous modern dance choreographer is known for refusing to define his dances or limit them to specific movement. So when his Paul Taylor Dance Company, now in its 48th year, appeared last Sunday at the Lensic Center in Santa Fe, all bets were off.

Taylor's four-day run played with familiar organizations, such as corporate culture, ancient pinnacles of society such as religion, and fantasy old-time movie themes. Seventeen dances in three acts incorporated ballet, Cunningham, swing, ballroom and gymnastics. The result was a fluid and aesthetically challenging performance that pushed the boundaries of dance.

In “Images,” a set of eight dances set to piano by Claude Debussy, dancers displayed an all-out athleticism that was gutsy and visceral, exuberant and celebratory. Clad in minimalist black leotards with white piping, Taylor's dancers moved through the first act with a stylized, almost obsessive freneticism.

In “Oracle,” soloist Amy Young was a devil in a long red skirt—she shook as if possessed and pretended to shove things in her mouth. Her hands fluttered near her ears, testing each side, showing the reverb by fluttering her fingers. She was frenetic, jerking wildly. Her panting could be heard from the back of the auditorium.

In “Totem Horses,” soloist Richard Chen See portrayed a puckish creature who flitted and frolicked with the women in the cast, who had become prancing ponies, stamping across the stage with their knees held high.

Through it all were Taylor's trademarks: deep plies, sharp angles, bodies turned up and out. But his work, while structured, never seemed obvious or predictable. Dancers were rarely in symmetrical patterns on stage and moved quickly and anxiously to simple, slow piano accompaniment better suited for high tea than the struggling forms writhing and fighting on stage.

Taylor's love for ironic juxtaposition was most evident in the second act. Here, Taylor put an assertive, almost violent, spin on office life. Dancers wore suit pants, white oxford shirts, ties and suspenders and twisted their way through simple piano music, composed for this piece by David Israel.

Dancers jerked themselves through the percussiveness, syncopations and breaks in the choreography. With their hands clenched behind their backs, hair slicked back tightly and necks bound by ties, they looked every bit the broken-down, power-hungry money-grubbers they were portraying. They contrasted with veteran soloist Lisa Viola, who wore a nearly X-rated anatomically correct nude body suit. She was primal and animalistic, with wild hair, hands cupped like paws and legs scratching the ground.

The dancers changed poses rapidly, shifting from stances that were full of worship and reverence to fighting and boastful positions that were accented by twisted expressions of absolute suffering and pain.

The set—an unusual addition for a dance company that usually works with none at all—consisted of six big gray panels. White fluorescent lights lined the floor, and the dancers looked as if they were performing in a parking garage or subway tunnel.

After the relentless second act, Taylor's company turned campy and friendly in “Black Tuesday.” The third act consisted of basic waltzes and pas de deux and was the technical low point of the performance—but it was also the crowd-pleaser because it used Depression-era songs. If the second act showed how depressing organized society can be, the third celebrated the crowded jumble of society's rules in a romantic Fitzgerald-esque way.

Unfortunately, this required songs with lyrics, and dance is never as good when choreographers let songs speak for them. The audience reacted more strongly to the lyrics of songs like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” than to the dancing itself. And I was downright embarrassed for Taylor during a dance in which a goofy, ungraceful “pregnant” woman, played by Silvia Nevjinsky, clowned around to the song “Sittin' on a Garbage Can.”

The third act seemed commercial and predictable, and was strangely family-friendly compared to the bleak and complex second act. For a Paul Taylor performance, it seemed too a little too easy-to-swallow, a little too Broadway. It wasn't what you'd expect from the world's premier modern dance choreographer. Then again, maybe it was just another Taylor ploy to constantly change and redefine the practice and thinking of modern dance.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre will perform at the Lensic Center August 29-31. Pilobolus is known for its innovative choreography and Cirque-du-Soleil-style acrobatics. They will perform with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. (505) 982-6683.

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