Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Humanity in the Machine

Michael Trusnovec in Banquet of Vultures. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
Marathon Cadenzas, the second season premiere for Paul Taylor Dance Company, evokes the carnival glossed nefariousness of Taylor's Big Bertha (1970) and Oh, You Kid! (1999). Those dances also come to mind when seeing Santo Loquasto's gorgeous atmospheric light string and pennant set, recalling those sultry summer nights in smalltown America where the unexpected is to be expected. The costumes define the characters by type—sailors, middle aged, vamps (which seems to be the only shading for women other than average); wigs and hairstyles play a larger than usual role.

The dance, to Raymond Scott's antic music, depicts old fashioned dance marathons. Sean Mahoney plays the white suited ringmaster inured to the dancers' suffering. He could be interchangeable with a tent preacher, snake oil salesman, or for that matter, choreographer. (Taylor's To Make Crops Grow, which preceded Marathon Cadenzas on Thursday's program, featured a similar figure in the form of Rob Kleinendorst.) Round and round the  dancers go, until they drop from exhaustion. Pullout duets and solos punctuate the monotony; Michelle Fleet, in a sleek jumpsuit, jitterbugs frantically. Sailors James Samson and Francisco Graziano toss off heel kicks and other gee-williker moves. Laura Halzack swivels her hips and bevels her feet, and gets pawed by the emcee. Finally, a depleted Michael Trusnovec wins the contest in a woozy, comic number, in which every move is rubbery, and possibly fatal. As Mahoney forced the weary dancers to keep going, I could only think of the company working tirelessly in the studio to prepare two premieres and 20 other dances for our viewing pleasure.

This season's premieres seem to have found Taylor in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on his role as an artist within the tight context of his de facto family. Seeing Mercuric Tidings (1982) and Arden Court (1981) on consecutive programs drew attention to a particularly fertile spell for abstract dances chock full of movement invention and extreme physicality. Mercuric Tidings contains devilishly quick, filigreed footwork sustained for long periods, and explosive movements that regularly punctuate the proceedings like mini fireworks. Like so many of his dances, it also has several breathtakingly lovely tableaux that crystallize out of nowhere. Arden Court is back in the rep after a deserved rest; it was last performed in New York by the Ailey Company. When it was last in PTDC's rotation and performed frequently, it was easy to take for granted the imaginative time shifts and the seemingly simple lift in which the woman locks her legs around the man's waist while pulling her torso apart from his to form a human tree. Seen anew, these small inventions are far better appreciated.

George Smallwood, Francisco Graziano, Rob Kleinendorst, and Sean Mahoney in To Make Crops Grow. Photo: Jamei Young
Two dark revivals featuring Trusnovec are reminders of how dark and sardonic Taylor can be. Banquet of Vultures (2005) is barely lit (by Jennifer Tipton) and Trusnovec, in his dark suit and red tie—the uniform of ruthless power—appears out of nowhere, ghoul-like, hell bent on utter domination of the soldier minions. His on-point timing and precise positions, the tautness with which he draws his upstretched arm like an arrow, and when he crosses his arms on his chest, tilts his head back, and channels some divine power all work to terrifying effect. The stygian setting is augmented by Morton Gould's glowering score. 

I'd forgotten how funny parts of Dante Variations can be. This study of frustrations is one of Taylor's dances that parcels out solos or duets showcasing the dancers' characteristics. The piece begins with the dancers forming a pyramid shaped tableau of still, torqued bodies; as the wheedling Ligeti organ music starts, they pulse with it, inert beings come to life from the underworld. Trusnovec whirls and darts in his quicksilver way, showing the curving arm shapes and off-kilter stances that comprise the vocabulary. Rob Kleinendorst is at his funniest, dimly aware of a length of toilet paper stuck to his foot. Laura Halzack's knees are inexplicably tied together, as are Aileen Roehl's wrists. Trusnovec and Eran Bugge face off in an angry duet, formidable foes warily circling the ring like scorpions preparing to strike. The dancers return to their sculptural tableau, hell refrozen over.

Every dance company's members develop as individual, and Taylor's moreso than many, given the huge scope of his oeuvre. On Sunday, a version of From Sea to Shining Sea (1965) acknowledged this by inviting alumni onstage for a sloppy group hug of a performance. A handful of current dancers were joined by dozens of recent and vintage departures, including Carolyn Adams, AnnMaria Mazzini, Heather Berest, Orion Duckstein, Hernando Cortez, Rachel Berman, David Parsons, Senta Driver, and current rehearsal director Bettie de Jong. Many were unrecognizable in the motley costumes which ranged from bathrobes, circus gymnasts, Super Mouse, Miss Liberty, land masses, pilgrims, etc. Lisa Viola in particular, with her surgical comic timing and blank facade, reminded us of her glaring absence. The pageant was more about sentiment and the institution than choreography and dance, which happened to bind everything together.

Fibers (1961) provided another look back at the company's roots. Two men (Kleinendorst and Michael Novak, a ringer for a young Taylor) and two women (Aileen Roehl, radiant and pliant, having a break-out season, and newish Christina Lynch Markham) become sculptures themselves with costumes of colored straps, pads, masks or face paint, and bas-relief piping, by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, also the designer of the stunning, rainbow-hued tree-like set. Taylor danced with Martha Graham, whose influence might be found in the work's Kabukian drama, stillness, sculpted poses, and the use of spacious, at times tumultuous music by Schoenberg. On a program preceded by Sunset and followed by Troilus and Cressida (Reduced) and Mercuric Tidings, we saw the full range of the choreographer's visions of poetic romance, seminal modernism, slapstick comedy, and precision machine. Mercuric Tiding is so airtight, and its speed so unforgiving, that, like a Formula One engine, it might explode with one misfire. And yet watch closely, and you can see Trusnovec slide his hands along Halzack's arms in the gentlest of gestures before once again hoisting her overhead. There is humanity in that machine.

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