Saturday, March 14, 2015

Taylor, Bright and Dark

Michael Apuzzo in Sea Lark. Photo: Whitney Browne
With Paul Taylor, you never know which side of him will come through in a new work—pensive, elegiac, romantic, dark, crazy, or joyful, to name a few. Sea Lark had its New York premiere by Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance on Wednesday at the Koch Theater, and it falls into the joyful category. Taylor conspired with artist Alex Katz, who designed the set and costumes, to give us a slice of sun, water and sand during the tail end of a wicked cold snap. It's all about the setting, and less about movement invention or deep narrative.

The boat is actually seaworthy looking—capable of holding four, it has a single operating sail (and hidden wheels). The 10 dancers (mainly Francisco Graciano) push it back and forth, marking the passage of time. In the first part, a bright yellow cyc and a foot-high bright blue wavelet provide the dancers with a narrow lane in which to move. Parisa Khobdeh, in a dotted crop top and neon orange shorts, frolics in the shallow surf, doing a back walkover. She is hauled into the boat with a lifesaver, more play than survival. The men wear white sailor pants and fitted primary-colored t-shirts. Dancers pair off; one couple is flirtatious, another boyishly antic. Michael Novak and Christina Lynch Markham compete like athletes on Venice Beach; Michael Apuzzo shows off his biceps and a back handspring. Poulenc's music (Selections from Les Biches) is bright and delineated in broad strokes, suitably cartoonish for this romp. 

Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack in Beloved Renegade. Photo: Paul B. Goode
In the season's second premiere, Death and the Damsel (admit it, his titles have always been pretty great) to music by Bohuslav Martinu, he went pitch black. Jamie Rae Walker, whose blond bob and girlish stature are shorthand for innocence and optimism, wakes up in an apartment, as seen in Santo Loquasto's Broadway-scale mural of a fractured cityscape. In her pink gingham sundress, she skips, rolls, does fouettes, makes funny bicep displays. But she falters as black-clad characters infiltrate the stage, foremost among them Michael Trusnovec in Loquasto's trim biker pleathers. The others are dressed like vampires going to a ball, with high collars, long coats, and all sorts of straps and head gear for the women. The music, until then a crisp interplay between cello and piano, starts to blur, and we've soon fallen completely into a dream sequence.

The next scene is backgrounded by a painted drop of a "Dance Club." The darklings conspire, clutching shoulders and circling ravenously, or inch-worming across the stage. Trusnovec and Laura Halzack waltz with deliberation, as if to impersonate people. He casts his spell on Walker, and she's in thrall to his powers, giving in like a rag doll. She awakens, only to be spun to the floor, her legs snapped open like a lobster cracker in a shorthand for rape. Each of the men take turns. (Once again, I found myself wondering, in fact hoping, if Mark Morris, in the house, would shout "No more rape!" He didn't.) If that weren't enough, after Walker rises, stunned, she's slapped by Halzack, evoking audible gasps from the audience, and is mock hit and kicked repeatedly.

Cut to the next scene, in front of Chrysler Building details. Halzack has now bewitched Walker, and they drift through a prolonged duet in slo-mo; the darklings lurk slowly nearby. The cello and piano lines weave tightly. Walker regains consciousness and defeats her demons abruptly, signaling victory.

If the desired effect was shock, Taylor succeeded. He has never shied from the depiction of terrible violence or madness. Is the work about dealing with dark psychological states? Or simply an expression of a dislike for nightlife? Maybe both. Like many of his narrative works, it is as much theater as dance. Its overtness and baroque sensibility, however, weigh heavily.

It didn't help that it followed Beloved Renegade (2008) on the March 13 program, perhaps the most recent truly great work in the company's rep. This tops the list of dances to benefit from live music, played this season by the Orchestra of St. Luke's (here with St. George's Choral Society and soprano Devon Guthrie). The recording that Taylor had previously used always sounded particularly canned, but played live, Poulenc's Gloria gains a needed immediacy and shimmering delicacy. You feel that Taylor was inspired, even frightened, by the idea of a poet (Trusnovec) facing his mortality, and every moment he's onstage, we're reminded of it. How he is a distant observer of playful humans, how fate (embodied by Laura Halzack) guides him unerringly and brutally, how he at last wholeheartedly embraces his peers—his life—during goodbyes. 

The finale on both of these performances was Esplanade (1975), another career high point that benefits immensely from the Bach score played live. It is often remembered for its gaiety and exhilaration, but the dark sections demonstrate how Taylor has ingeniously expressed inner turmoil. The broken family whose hands only hover near one another. The human animals, on all fours, trudging in an unending circle. It's capped by the exuberant ending, following the stage equivalent of a series of pool party cannonballs, now led by Parisa Khobdeh. Michelle Fleet bidding us a warm thank you and goodnight.

The company's season, now with works by Doris Humphrey and Shen Wei, continues through March 29.

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