Saturday, March 19, 2016

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance week one premieres—Surface, and what lies beneath

Eran Bugge, Rob Kleinendorst, and Michelle Fleet in Dilly Dilly. Photo: Paul B. Goode
On its surface, one of Paul Taylor's New York season premieres, Dilly Dilly, seems to be a charming, nostalgic view of Western rites and social pleasures. All of the participants—in Stetsons, colored tops, and black daisy dukes (the gals) or jeans (the guys)—flirt and eye one another while square dancing, or playing innocently, imitating horses. A chorus might stand in a line, framing a central pair or solo before exiting, such as Rob Kleinendorst as he's harangued by one or more "Blue Tail Fly," as the song depicts—women rubbing their palms together like insect antennae. 

For such an outwardly cheerful dance, set to folk songs sung by Burl Ives, a lot of people wind up blotto. They are victims of what might be termed "domestic violence," lovers facing the consequences of embroiled emotions. T
o "Frankie and Johnny," the song title's characters pair up with others, leaving Johnny (Michael Trusnovec) plum dead.The hats and cowpoke posturing give subterfuge to fatal actions, resulting from the presence of passion and guns. It has echoes of current events—the recent takeover of federal land in Oregon, with its protagonists brandishing the requisite equipment plus a lot of martyr-like bluster and swagger, or random shootings that wouldn't have happened without the presence of a gun.

The dance is set before a vast painted backdrop by Santo Loquasto (who also designed the costumes) of angular, abstract shapes on a yellow background. It seems to have little to do with the rest of the dance's pieces, but the objects appear to hang ominously over the dancers, threatening to ruin a typical night of fun and fatality. (The title derives from "delightful.") The finale is a perfect cheerleader style pyramid, an example of one of the tableaux at which Taylor excels, and the presumed subject of the accompanying song, "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." The movement in Dilly is as much storytelling as dance, and it's simple, clear, and fresh. There's a quiet and spaciousness, even anomie, to the tone and look of the dance that add to its distinctly American feel. 

In Dilly, as in many of Taylor's "social dance" works (among them, Marathon Cadenzas, Piazzolla Caldera, Cloven Kingdom, even Big Bertha, to an extent), the premise of social dancing serves not only as movement source material and cultural context, but also as a structure for the more bestial behavior that simmers, then boils over the confines of accepted rituals, or just plain consumes them. 

Heather McGinley and Parisa Khobdeh in The Weight of Smoke. Photo: Paul B. Goode
There is that premiere (one of two new works by Taylor for this company this season), and then there is another brand altogether: The Weight of Smoke, by Doug Elkins, to Handel/beat mix by Justin Levine/Matt Stine that at moments recalled the music for Cloven Kingdom. It's the first commission by an outside choreographer set on the Taylor company. It's kind of a revolutionary idea, as this troupe has been so keenly devoted to one man's vision for more than 60 years, even as members come and go with time. Their bodies are instruments finely tuned to one key, so to see them stretch their legs is a bit shocking. Touches of hip-hop—rippling torsos, turtle spins—are sprinkled throughout. In the partnering section, the couples lock lips and proceed through several phrases that way; Heather McGinley and Parisa Khobdeh outlast the three other pairs. 

It's no surprise that Elkins refrained from using the more extreme hip-hop moves that he employs on his own company; these can be the most memorable moments of his dances, and so what's left feels less distinctive. The Taylor dancers could also use a bit more time finding the rubbery looseness, sometimes even awkwardness, that grounds his uncodified style. He mentioned in a talk about the commission earlier this year that he aimed to nod at the physicality, flat style, and partnering in Taylor's choreography. In the absence of a clear narrative, it is helpful to know this to give some mental shape to the dance while watching.

The stage didn't truly become electric until the very end, when three men vogued, moving downstage and anchored by Michael Novak. The dancers seemed to suddenly wield the power of their physicality in a different way—no holds barred, aiming to dazzle as if dancing at a club. It contrasted with the dance's more introspective earlier sections. Appropriately, it also seemed to pick up the social dance thread left dangling by Dilly Dilly.

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance continues through April 3 at the Koch Theater. 

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