Elegant craft but no strong emotion from Paul Taylor Dance Company

The most stimulating sight in an evening of uncommonly smooth — but somewhat bland — group dynamics by the Paul Taylor Dance Company was the image of the odd man out. He was the stagehand, a character in “Also Playing,” the last of the three works the troupe performed Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. (The program repeats Thursday.) Danced by the excellent Robert Kleinendorst, he had lurked in the shadows of Taylor’s winking view of vaudeville until his freewheeling solo at the very end. And this jaunty, soaring bit with a push broom contained more physical release, uncorked emotion and deeply individualistic expression than just about any other moment in the evening.

All that, and no music. The rest of “Also Playing” had been danced to Donizetti excerpts, but Kleinendorst’s only accompaniment was his humming. This twist was vintage Taylor, ending a work, and by extension an entire program, not with a big group finale but with a solo. (Think of the anguished close to “Black Tuesday” — different atmosphere, but similar structure.) But Kleinendorst’s liberating riff in a darkened theater had an unintentional effect here. It stood in high contrast to what came to feel like a drawback over the course of the evening: the seamlessness of Taylor’s ensemble choreography, so polished and untextured that it began to feel slick.

The evening simmered along on a slow flame, from the good-natured search for fleshly satisfaction in “Brief Encounters,” through the comic-book love triangle and intentionally fuzzy narrative of “Three Dubious Memories,” and ambling to a close with the sweet slapstick and cute jokes in “Also Playing.” One was struck by craft — there is no dance craftsman alive like Taylor — but not by urgency.

In Taylor’s long career — he is nearing 81 — you’ll find humor, poignancy, romance, sex, clear-eyed commentary, what have you; the man is a master of variety. But his best works sting. There’s a flash of pain, a jolt of recognition as some aspect of the human condition locks into focus and you’re left slightly out of breath. In this program, while I appreciated Taylor’s skill and the high caliber of the dancing, I didn’t feel that customary emotional yank.

One is left to marvel at Taylor’s construction, his elegant ichibana of bodies. The opening of “Brief Encounters” was like a bud unfolding, as dancers in a tight knot reached out their arms and stepped into a circle that spun wider and faster and finally spiraled into the wings. The backdrop of receding arches and cracked plaster suggested a centuries-old monastery; the dancers wore skimpy black underwear that suggested centuries-old urges — suggested, but never delivered, for the temperature here was warm and comfortable, even a bit stale. Debussy’s “Le Coin des Enfants” lent a dreamy, romantic, muted air.

“Three Dubious Memories,” which premiered in the fall (the other two works were from 2009) was rendered in a stiff, two-dimensional style, as if the dancers were cutouts. The electronic score by Peter Elyakim Taussig was especially provocative, rolling and sparking like a pointillist force field. Three characters, two men and a woman, recall the same love affair in different ways, while a modified Greek chorus swirls and eddies around them like water.

The last section is titled “Threnody,” and as the name suggests, it is about death. In the reverse of “Brief Encounters,” the whole cast implodes, folding and layering themselves into a knot with that pristine, tightknit Taylor intricacy. A life rewound? Was this the last gasp of one of the dancers, looking back on his life with questions? In an altogether lukewarm program, the murkiness of this mystery felt soft, nebulous. Sometimes, the best theatrical experience is raw and imperfect, with a few sharp edges.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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