Taylor pieces performed by immensely talented performers who move together with phenomenal unison

October 26, 2010

Paul Taylor, between the body and the spirit

Broad Street Review

“Modern” is a tricky word in the arts— a word that seems to look forward but simultaneously refers back to what is by now a fairly extensive history. Some of the masterpieces in the Museum of Modern Art date back to the late 19th Century; modern dance began with the work of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis in the first decade of the 20th Century. These women began to transform the highly formalized movement of classical ballet by removing their dancers’ shoes and emphasizing expressiveness.

Over the following decades, these women were joined by other choreographers and visionaries, including St. Denis’s husband Ted Shawn and Martha Graham. One of those “others” was Paul Taylor, who started as a dancer for Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and George Balanchine but launched his own company in 1954. That company in turn became the incubator for yet another generation of dance greats, including David Parsons and Twyla Tharp.

Fifty-six years later, Taylor is still choreographing, and overseeing two separate touring companies. His most recent work (new this year) is Phantasmagoria, which was literally the centerpiece of a program presented as part of the Annenberg Center’s Dance Celebration series, “Superstars of Dance: Today and Tomorrow.” (The David Parsons company will appear in December as part of the series.)

Renaissance dream

In Phantasmagoria, Taylor presents a series of dream sequences set to Renaissance music, a combination that achieves two themes simultaneously.

One is an examination of the interplay between the spiritual and the carnal. The piece opens with Brueghelesque peasants, whose penitence is transformed to celebration. Next, an (Asian) Indian prince and princess play with an enormous snake, which is confiscated by the same Byzantine nun who had scolded the peasants.

After the Indians move offstage, the nun herself enjoys some serpentine pleasure. Next, an Irish step dancer single-handedly embodies the gulf between the sacred and the profane: The traditional explanation of the upper-body stillness in step dancing is that it’s intended to placate the Catholic Church’s bias against the physical body.

The second theme that Taylor threads through Phantasmagoria is the history of modern dance. He nods to two of its very earliest figures: St. Denis, who often played with Indian and other Asian imagery and movements, and Duncan, whose acolytes were known as Isadorables. Three of these ethereal creatures, in gauzy Grecian gowns, are harassed by a Bowery bum; again, the dancers act out that spirit/body split.

With these references, Taylor gently tweaks dance history— his presentation of the Isadorables is far from reverent— while simultaneously celebrating it through the power and precision with which his dancers execute the movements.

Wildness vs. civilization

That power and precision are also evident in the two older pieces in this program. Arden Court (first performed in 1981) and Cloven Kingdom (1976) also deal with the interplay of opposites: the relationship between the sexes in Arden Court, and the tension between wildness and civilization in Cloven Kingdom.

All three pieces are danced by immensely talented performers who move together with phenomenal unison. Whether performing cascades of repeated movement, mirroring each other, or moving in concert, their timing is impeccable and their control is phenomenal.