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Paul Taylor's Marvelous Melting Pot

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page C01

The sense of something new and wonderful emerging from mixed traditions bursts out of "Klezmerbluegrass," the new work by Paul Taylor that opened his company's magnificent program Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. It is clear before the curtain goes up, in Margot Leverett's lyrical arrangement of klezmer and bluegrass music. The mosaic is there at all once: the swooping, supple notes of the clarinet, the wailing violin, the loping guitar that quickens the pace, joined by bright, lift-you-out-of-your-seat fiddling.

Taylor responds with dancing that is a full-out rush of joy. Even the costumes -- Santo Loquasto's high-waisted dresses and waistcoats in bright pink-red, edged in blue -- are bold, straightforward expressions of high spirits. This piece was commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in honor of the 350th anniversary of Jews' arrival in America, and Taylor puts on a heck of a party.

Richard Chen See in a program that exhibits Taylor's trademark fluidity. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

Jewish folk dance and Appalachian square dance are woven together with Taylor's trademark fluidity. He reformulates both in a direct, muscular way. There is some hand-holding, some bowing and curtsying, dancing in a line or in whirling circles. But rather than specific ethnic steps, what you see is what communal dancing feels like, that bubbly high you get from the group dynamics.

Curiosity and playfulness take over as the dancers start checking each other out. One by one, each man picks a woman to chase, as if absent the dancing, social skills are reduced to a playground game. The mood changes with a section called "Klezmer Waltz," for eight men, which is not a waltz at all but a slow shifting of weight. With eyes downcast, arms stretched across each other's shoulders, the men stand in a robust line that brings to mind an unyielding work ethic, shared sorrows and the strength drawn from unity.

A section for couples dials the mood back up to exuberant, with the men tossing their women high overhead. It's all-inclusive fun: Two men play a game of wheelbarrow, as one holds up the legs of another, who is walking on his hands toward the wings. The sly smile that the upright dancer flashes at the audience lets us know that he has further sport in mind once they get backstage. One couple is lifted up to sit on the shoulders of their colleagues, recalling Jewish weddings where the newlyweds are raised high in chairs.

At the end of the piece, a piano chimes in with a jumpy ragtime beat, the clarinet gets jazzier and the progression through time becomes clear. We've moved from the Old World klezmer sound of tears and perseverance to a barnyard hoedown to the contemporary offspring of both.

In the dancing as in the music, this story of assimilation has the happiest of endings.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company is celebrating an anniversary of its own -- its 50th -- and as its history and this program demonstrate, a cornerstone of its success is Taylor's unparalleled creative imagination.

In this, his achievements must surely outstrip those of nearly any other choreographer. Even ballet master George Balanchine, for all his musical ingenuity and emotional depth, relied on certain conventions to solve musical equations. Yet Taylor, unfettered by any specific technique or school of dance, offers surprise after surprise.

Take "Eventide" (1997), the centerpiece of this program, a quietly explosive ballad of lost love, whose stinging ending feels like both a profound literary experience and a punch in the gut.

The act of walking has never looked so good or described so much as in this piece for five couples, accompanied by Ralph Vaughan Williams's bittersweet Suite for Viola and Orchestra and Hymn-Tune Prelude. Much of the dancing riffs off the contented stroll, the matching of rhythms, hipbone against hipbone, the easing of two people into one steady cadence. Each couple incorporates this idea of connective motion in a duet that expresses varying stages of romance. When Lisa Viola and Richard Chen See dance their walking number, it has the jauntiness of a soft-shoe routine.

Patrick Corbin -- a dancer of towering strength and a rare, riveting intensity -- and Heather Berest are the most mature and poignant pair, drifting farther and farther apart the more they endeavor to bond. Soon all the couples are separating, their love fading. There is a devastating walking sequence when lines of dancers come together and shift apart with rigid precision, as if their steps are now being governed by the relentless ticking of time. Alone, Corbin and Berest cross the stage toward each other, but their hands grab only air, and the momentum of their steps pulls them apart, into darkness.

"Arden Court" (1981) has a happier picture to paint, using the baroque symphonies of William Boyce. Here, Taylor's vocabulary is not as reduced as in "Eventide," but nearly: There are repeated shapes and their derivatives, twisting torsos and sweeping, upraised arms, forming an excited stream of X's and Y's. It's a tribute to a heroic cast, well muscled and strong. It's also an ideal portrait of humanity, not unlike that which is depicted in the celebratory "Klezmerbluegrass" and the opening moments of the nostalgic dream of perfection in "Eventide."

Taylor's world is a wonder indeed.

Performances continue this afternoon and evening.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company