I love you Atlanta, but I have to say your traffic stinks. I’m always giving myself at least an hour to get where I’m going. The crows can get there in 20 minutes. As I leave the door my husband gives me the “sheesh…you’re leaving already” and the “I can’t believe you’re leaving me with the kids again” look. So rushed, anxious and a bit guilt ridden about leaving all the red heads behind, I began the journey into the city with all the other wackos on a Saturday night. This time I was off and running to another theater I haven’t been to, The Rialto.
The Modern Dance Treat du Jour was the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Paul Taylor is what I would call a classic modern choreographer. In the modern dance family tree you have the great grandparents like Isadora Dunkin, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis and the Ted Shawn. Then you get the grandparents, like Merce Cunningham, Erik Hawkins and Alvin Ailey, dancers who might have danced for the aforementioned group but then took the rebellion against ballet even further–thematically, musically, artistically. This is the tier in which Paul Taylor lives. Forgive me for the brevity of this synopsis, the tree is as wide and expansive as a century old Oak; there are obviously many choreographers to discuss but these are some of the big players.
Taylor found dance through swimming and painting. He eventually landed at Julliard. In 1954 his first company of dancers was assembled, and in the next year he also joined The Graham Company. In the 50’s his work was so cutting edge, audience members left dazed and confused, sometimes before the performance was over. Martha Graham dubbed him the “naughty boy” of dance. He is still with us, at 80, and has been making dances ever since, 134 to be exact.
I arrived a bit behind schedule; a Q &A session was already underway. This little pre-show chat was with Betty de Jonge, a long time dancer of Paul Taylor’s. She joined the company in 1962 and has been with him for 37 years as a dancer, favorite dance partner and rehearsal director. Also present was long time dancer and current company rehearsal manager, Andy LeBeau. They spoke eloquently about Taylor’s work and what we were to expect that evening. Along with becoming a larger and more established company they discussed how they have changed over the years and the challenges they face. Since its conception, the company has grown from 6 to 19 dancers. Created in 1993 was the companion company, Taylor 2. They explained how Taylor’s pieces are not pretty things in a box–he allows them to grow. He fits the many rolls to the dancers themselves and then change occurs to the pieces as a whole. Ms. De Jonge mentioned that the dancers today have incredible technique and a beautiful lyrical quality. Now… on with the show.
The first piece of the evening was the classic Company B, to the music of the Andrew Sisters. The best way to describe the overall feel of this work is to say it was like watching a jazzy, modern interpretation of a WWII movie. It was funny and glamorous like old Hollywood, complete with teenagers flirting in a soda shop, but the sad reality of soldiers at war was always looming in the background. The movement quality was fluid and mellow, lots of grapevines and snap- kick- snaps. The second section was a duet to the Pennsylvania Polka. As the couple happily did the swing around the stage, a string of soldiers in silhouette walked slowly along the back drop. The piece moved forward with a male solo. Classic in structure, the dancer jetéd in circles, but the smooth movement was interjected with jerks as though he was getting shot. Limp soldiers strewn across the stage was a recurring theme. A quirky funny section included the entire female cast and one gentleman donning a pair of geeky glasses. He was smothered in their swoony affection. In fact, at one point, they actually all piled on top of him.
At this point, a pattern to the choreography emerged, and the choreographer in me loves to find structure. We got to enjoy a soft slow female solo. This was an adagio with delicate ballroom arms, in stark contrast to the male solo earlier. Next, three couples boogied around the stage, one of the males went down right in the middle of the action and his female counterpart was torn between tending to him and joining the other happy dancers who were oblivious to what had happened. The piece moved on with to a male ensemble with one sultry female. She strutted around in a red lined skirt as the men rolled and slid across the stage, trying to see what was underneath. Like Marilyn Monroe entertaining the troops, she walked over them and they followed. Then another duet emerged, this time not joyful and flirty, but sad. This couple seemed to be saying goodbye. The slow line of soldiers with their exaggerated steps in parallel attitude, paraded again behind them. A particularly nice moment for me was when the male dancer bourréed on his heels with his back turned towards the audience. They also danced together doing a box step, but from opposite sides of the stage. This piece was as easy as it was hard. Even through the light and funny parts, there was always a sad undertone of the unfortunate happenings somewhere else. Taylor being a true craftsman was able to balance the two and give us a lovely yet thoughtful dance piece.
Phantasmagoria, the newest and second piece of the evening, was premiered at the American Dance Festival this summer. This was the one that interested me the most, because I am always curious about what an artist is doing currently. I tend to like my art a little dark and a little odd, and that is exactly what it was. Based on the work of Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the elder, Taylor made a dream sequence. Who doesn’t like a good dream sequence? There was a motley cast of characters; Flemish villagers, a trio of Isadorables, East Indian Adam and Eve, an Irish step dancer, a Bowery bum, St. Vitus and (who can forget?) the grand Byzantine Nun. By the way, this is the part I want to audition for. What do you think, Paul, a cameo perhaps next time you’re in Atlanta?
The opening formation introduced us to the villagers in period peasant clothes, complete with headgear and cod pieces. The music of an anonymous renaissance composer guided us into the dream as a single tortured female reached, fell, pounded on the floor and hinged at the knee with clenched fists. This series of movement initiated a canon as two more dancers joined her. A chase scene ensued, the men looking like court jesters, leaving the one tortured dancer behind. This dancer is then removed by the stern nun. The movement vocabulary in this piece already appealed more to my sense of aesthetic. There was a nice phrase as a pair of dancers did a series of sauté arabesque lifts to a chest bump, which I thought was a pretty interesting bit of invention.
Three couples dance a surreal jig making way for the East Indian Adam and Eve. This duet was just plain silly. In fact, it wasn’t a duet at all it was a trio with a giant stuffed snake. Yes, Paul Taylor took it “there,” the dancers made all kinds of naughty jokes involving the snake. Another lovely part for me, and a good example of the amazing technical skills of these dancers, was when Adam in attitude, standing on one leg, hops all the way across stage. If that wasn’t enough, Eve then proceeds to swing the stuffed reptile in a coffee grinder manner, and Adam (still on one leg, by the way) plays jump rope with it. My favorite character, the nun, appeared again reprimanding the couple, confiscated the animal and got a little naughty herself.
An Irish step dancer led to a clumsy drunken bar fight. A trio of slightly awkward Isadora Dunkin types, the Isadorables, was wooed by a bum with a cliché bottle in a paper bag. Next a mysterious man in grey came on obviously evil or sick. His movement quality was athletic but very macabre, in a shaky and twitchy way. My first thought was that he was a drug addict. Then the plague came to mind. There was nice contrast when the villagers joined him, dancing in a happy, courtly-like manner. However, whatever he had spread to each dancer one by one until everyone lay on the floor. The Isadorables made another appearance dancing amongst the dead. Like angels they revived the villagers into a reprieve of the stunning opening sequence. The hypocritical nun graced us again and the piece ended with the bum blowing kisses and stumbling off.
The final piece of the evening was Brandenburgs, obviously to the beautiful concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach. This piece truly was a wonderful physical interpretation of the music and the audience could just sit back and enjoy. The cast was broken up into three groups. There was a male ensemble, like a classic corps de ballet with a gender twist, whose main purpose was to highlight a trio of female dancers. Then there was one male soloist, who weaved himself in and out of the piece partnering the women when necessary. There was, what I would call, a pas de quatre where he partnered all the women at the same time. My favorite moment in this piece, and even all night, was when I thought the dance was over and the male soloist was still standing down stage right. I truly thought the curtain was going to go down, but to my surprise it didn’t. Our soloist began a mesmerizing slow adagio of transitional poses, never stopping but seeming to stay still and strong. Then Brandenburgs exploded! All the dancers returned, Concerto No. 3 got increasingly faster and the movement became almost frantic. It got to the point where I couldn’t believe they were still dancing. Then they tied a bow on the piece by reassembling in their opening formation.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company gave a little something for everyone. We could think, feel, laugh, be disgusted or just sit back and enjoy if we wanted to. Dancers are a hard working group of artist. It is a heartform. From New York to Durham to Atlanta to Turkey this is a hard working company. They travel the world, leave sweat on our stages and entertain us. The least we can do as audience members is buy some tickets. Thank you, Paul Taylor, for coming to Atlanta.