Saturday, April 30, 2011

Larger-Than-Life: Paul Taylor Dance Company

 "Polaris" Photo by Lois Greenfield
The wonderful thing about well-trained dancers? Just how wonderful they are. You can’t take your eyes off them, or stop marvelling at their ability to seem larger-than-life and super-human, creatures propelled into greatness by the strength and skill of bodies leashed to the hand of an expert teacher and choreographer. Such was the thought inspired by watching members of Paul Taylor Dance Company perform earlier this week at the Markham Theatre, located north of Toronto, as part of the New York’s troupe’s recent, four-city Ontario tour.

As soon as the curtain rose on Polaris, the first of three works choreographed by the masterful Paul Taylor, a one-evening-only program, it was evident that the dancers, posed like statues inside Alex Katz’s box-like set, were beyond the norm, even by their own modern-dance standards. To begin with, these barefoot dancers dressed in skimpy black-and-white bathing suit costumes (Katz did the costumes too) were super-muscular. No waif-like ballerinas, here. As if to emphasize that point, Taylor, the now 80-year old choreographer said to be one of the fathers of American modern dance, showcased them in a work he originally created in 1976 celebrating the interpretive and inspirational powers of dancers’ bodies. Divided into two parts, Polaris, with a commissioned score by Donald York, featured an exact sequence of movement that is repeated in the second half by a different cast of performers who are quite distinct from the first. At Thursday night’s performance, the second group looked angry where the first cast looked happy, their movements correspondingly staccato where the first group's were smooth. Call it a study in dynamics. Or, as Taylor stated in his program notes, “An opportunity ... to observe the multiple effects that music, lighting and individual interpretations by the performers have on a single dance.”

Choreographer Paul Taylor
Either way, the dancers were ostensibly the stars of this dance. Taylor used the occasion to present them as finely tuned physical instruments – his human variations on a choreographed theme. The choreography called for them to pose like body-builders and as members of a football cheer-leading squad, a result of Taylor’s love of American vernacular movement traditions. Their flexed arm muscles, headstands and human pyramid formations dramatically highlighted by the clarity and precision of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design, they presented an image of the body beautiful in all its glory. Transitioning effortlessly out of this freeze-frame imagery, the dancers hopped, leapt glided and spun with the speed and smoothness of sunlight on dappled water. Even while moving, they placed emphasis on line and form to lend a sense of grandeur and purpose to the multi-directional drive of the choreography. Feet remained pointed while hands, like arrows, helped define the forward-thrust of the dance. But these dancers weren’t born that way. Taylor taught them. In highlighting their physiques what we’re really doing is celebrating the genius of a master choreography who knows when to let other people’s bodies do all the talking.

His longevity alone – he started his eponymous company in 1954 when he himself was a dancer hailed for his musicality and bold approach – firmly establishes him as a seasoned artist who has long made a habit of sharing what he knows with younger dancers. He was once a dancer himself, coming of age at time when modern dance was really just in infancy; he learned the craft first-hand from his teacher, the late, great American modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. He has always said that she had a lasting impact on his own career. He knows how to give back.

When he became a choreographer in the early 1950s, Graham dubbed Taylor the “naughty boy” of dance for daring to create works about incest, rape and other subjects considered taboo for dance at the time. Age it seems has mellowed him: there is nothing remotely controversial about the program he has brought to Canada except, perhaps, for how much better trained his modern dancers are than our own homegrown variety. And yet he is as sharp as ever, still capable of creating dances that literally leap off the stage to embed themselves in the viewer’s imagination. That much was made clear by the trio of works seen Thursday night in Markham. Besides Polaris, the evening included Three Dubious Memories, a 22-minute Rashomon-esque dance about shifting points of view within a given (non-verbal) narrative that Taylor created just last year, and Promethean Fire, a 19-minute work of blazing physicality that served as the rousing finale to a most enjoyable show.

"Promethean Fire" Photo by Lois Greenfield
An ensemble piece involving all 16 of the company’s dancers, Promethean Fire, created in 2002, came across as a gripping, tour-de-force that devoured space even as it sought to fill it with arresting physical formations and sculpted shapes. Creating those shapes were the dancers, men and women  dressed alike in Santo Loquasto’s costume design of black unitards slashed with grey chevron stripes. Together, they rode the rising and falling rhythms of J.S. Bach’s grand “Toccata & Fugue in D minor, Prelude in E-flat minor and Chorale Prelude BWV 680,” as orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski. The dancers were moving in unison or else mirroring each other in classic group formations whose careful symmetry was frequently broken apart by unexpected zigzags of movement that fuelled the work forward. Propelling them upward and onward was Taylor’s sweeping choreography whose air-carving curves and full-body crawls culminated in a heap of bodies at centre floor.

Meticulously crafted, the work was also subversively funny, even when soaring to the heights of heaven and back: a male dancer partnered a female, at one point turning her, but with his body bent and her head resting on the small of his back (if you can imagine it!), executing tiny, rapid, flat-footed steps to rotate them both. He hoisted her into the air, and she descended, wrapping her body around his head like a human bandana covering the eyes, rendering him momentarily blind. He suddenly flailed his arms as he struggled against the burden on his shoulders, an image that slyly recalled Prometheus, the hero alluded to in the title, whose myth tells the story of the mankind’s connection to its gods. In this way, Taylor seemed to be saying that all relationships in life can be tricky – a message maybe harkening back to his “naughty boy” days, but communicated this time with a startling bolt of humour.

"Three Dubious Memories" Photo by Andrea Mohin
Taylor’s understanding (and appreciation) of the absurdity of life was most pronounced in Three Dubious Memories in which a love triangle was recollected differently by each of the protagonists involved: The Man in Blue (Sean Mahoney), The Man in Green (Robert Kleinendorst) and The Woman in Red (Amy Young). Overseeing the various danced interpretations of the same event was a grey-clad Choirmaster (James Samson), backed by Choristers (Eran Bugge, Jamie Rae Walker, Aileen Roehi, Jeffrey Smith, Francisco Graciano, Michael Apuzzo and Michael Novak) whose fluttering hands, combat crawls and circle dances served as non-verbal signifiers denoting commentary on the main event. Confrontations among the three abounded, resulting in (feigned) blows to the face and kicks to the groin.

But the action at these emotionally charged moments was slowed and exaggerated to a hilarious degree, making the physical assaults resemble the hyperbolic zow!-wow!-pow! antics of comic-strip dramas, if not the pop art paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, which this work strongly resembled (you could almost see the thought bubbles forming above the heads of the 2-D caricatures depicted on the stage). Interspersed among the commonplace was iconic imagery of a couple kissing, in particular Psyche and Cupid as depicted by in the famous Baroque sculpture of Antonio Canova. When all the love-making and fighting was over, the three main dancers assembled at what looked like a meeting of The Last Judgment, clasping their hands as if in prayer, but with no real resolution offered.

Despite this somewhat unsatisfactory ending, the piece, with a tick-tocking score by Peter Elvakim Taussig, fascinated as a result of Taylor characteristically weaving into his choreography high brow elements combined with low. As well, like the other dances on the program, this one featured movement that was controlled and symmetrical one moment, explosive with classical lines of movement inverted, distorted, turned in on themselves the next. As such, it fulfilled Taylor’s long-held belief that his work is a mongrel, made from disparate elements pulled from his own past experiences as an athlete who became a dancer who then became a painter before becoming, finally, a choreographer – one of the best living and working today. That definition would be fine, expect for one thing: the dancers. His choreography might be a shaggy dog, but they’re the purebred dancers you want to pin a ribbon on as a result of having a master who groomed them well.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

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