Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Paul Taylor Dance Company-Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

During its annual engagement in San Francisco, the Paul Taylor Dance Company presented three varied programs, consisting of classics, newer pieces and one West Coast premiere. On the final day of performance, the company danced Promethean Fire (2002), with its visually haunting ensemble work and the humorously satirical Book of Beasts (1971). The latter is like being immersed in a live children’s book, while still being an intellectual commentary mocking the conventions of ballet and modern dance. It was fascinating to examine whether the Beasts in Taylor’s imagination where literally the characters that were being portrayed on stage or if those beasts were symbolically representing the sometimes stagnant custom and practice of dance.

The opening piece of Sunday’s program was Roses (1985), a lyrical masterpiece, danced in two parts. The first and main section follows the relationship and interaction of five couples. The movements were seamless and quiet, whether a couple was simply placing their hands together, or performing a lift high in the air. The idea of sustaining also brought tranquility to the piece. The grand verses and developpes a la second almost occurred in slow motion; they were so pulled to the last possible extent of movement. However, the gracefulness did not only apply to the more balletic steps. Taylor had also choreographed somersaults and cartwheels into the piece, which were performed with the same great subtlety and care. In this beginning segment, there were times when one pair of dancers was featured and the others were in resting positions as well as moments where all ten dancers were engaged as a group. Even when all of them were moving together in a number of circular patterns (which included running, grand jetes, and galloping), there was a notion of gentleness in the approach and execution of Taylor’s beautiful choreography. This culminated in their final pose-all five couples were seated, facing upstage with the women leaning their heads against the men’s chests. The second portion had one shorter pas de deux, with the dancers wardrobed completely in white, against the backdrop of the other pairs resting in their tableau facing the back of the stage.

The narrative of Roses was what truly captivated the audience. There was nothing clearer than this piece to characterize beginnings: emergent feelings and the procreation of newness. The idea of Spring is a bit cliché; flowers blooming, birds singing and the sun shining. But, no matter how trite or contrived, that is exactly what was happening in San Francisco during the Taylor Company’s run at YBCA. Everyone was outside, enjoying the park, short-sleeved and smiling. It is not often that so many people are in such a good mood at the same time. But, that is what Spring does. In those first few weeks where the chill disappears and the weather is perfect (not too hot and not too cold), the positive seems to radiate from people and from nature. Paul Taylor’s Roses embraced and illustrated this joyful serenity in a number of ways.

Firstly, the circular choreography was reminiscent of springtime country-dances. The influence of American folk dance was readily apparent, with the dancers forming a drawbridge with their arms as couples galloped underneath. During these group sequences, the cast looked like they had stepped right out of an Appalachian square dance or May Day celebration. Secondly, the affection and adoration of the duets represented the innocent blossoming union of young love. The anticipation, hesitancy and emotion were palpable in the gestures between the couples and the manner in which they approached moving together as one unit. The ‘at rest positions’ were equally powerful at illustrating tenderness between the dancers. The simple placing of one’s hand on his or her partner’s cheek and remaining in that position said so much even without them moving. Lastly, Taylor brought into the piece a maturity with the final pas de deux. It was almost as if he was emphasizing the cyclical nature of life. The first set of dancers had expressed the ‘beginnings’; love, joy, and friendship. The final duet examined the more mature side of relationships, and from this couple and their choreography, there was a warmth and devotion that was long-term; built over time. It was not that their movements were more restrained; moreover, there was a familiarity and respect that they exuded toward each other. With the other five couples frozen in that final pose at the back of the stage, it seemed like they were dreaming of their relationships in the future, and these last dancers were illustrating what that would look like.

It is refreshing to see a company that is the product of a true ‘modern master’. Like many of his predecessors, Paul Taylor works with traditional and contemporary American cultural themes and pairs that with a true celebration of all dance in his choreography. So many modern choreographers shy away from showcasing the balletic talent of their dancers for fear of the fusion of ballet and modern. But why, we live in a world of dance where anything goes. In present-day choreography, there is hip-hop mixed with clogging, flamenco interspersed with jazz, and tap alongside pointe. Let ballet and modern co-exist; Taylor has given us gestalt dance, where the combination of forms can be more than the sum of its parts.