Paul Taylor, Hitting Close To Home
Monday, December 18, 2006
If anyone doubted who the savage character in the suit and tie was supposed to represent in Paul Taylor's unsparingly brutal antiwar work "Banquet of Vultures," Taylor himself minced no words in explaining.
"Frankly, the guy in the red tie is Bush," the ordinarily reticent choreographer told the audience during a discussion after Friday's richly textured performance of the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Taylor said he was inspired to create a dance focusing on President Bush after watching him move.
"The first time I saw Bush walking, on television, I did not trust the man," he said. "His walk is a lie.
"Walks are like fingerprints," he continued. "They tell a lot about us. And this one was not sincere."
Taylor's own body language, his animated demeanor, his very willingness to speak colorfully in a large public forum made clear how pleased this native Washingtonian was that "Banquet of Vultures" -- an obvious denunciation of the Iraq war and the politicians who started it, a work that Taylor created last year -- was being seen just a short hop from the White House.
Despite the wholesome athletic appearance of the dancers he hires, and despite the generally upbeat nature of his works, Taylor harbors the zealous heart of a gadfly. He likes to shock.
When Taylor founded his company more than 50 years ago, one of his first works was a silent tableau of two dancers who did not move. His first big hit, "Aureole" in 1962 (with which his company opened last weekend's program), sparked controversy because it was lighthearted and pretty and accompanied by the uplifting music of Handel, at a time when modern dance was acid and introspective, and did not follow a beat.
Friday's performance of "Aureole" was especially bright, as if the wattage had been turned up a few notches -- the smiles were extra wide, the dancers' arms swung with vigor. In the central solo, the lightly built Michael Trusnovec emphasized weightless serenity. But I missed the more substantive, grounded pull of past interpreters of this role, who have lent it a touch more gravitas and expansiveness. Perhaps Taylor heightened the sweetness here to draw a starker contrast with "Banquet of Vultures," which came later in the evening.
Where "Aureole" is so frequently brisk, "Airs," also accompanied by Handel, is soft, whispery, but also unabashedly concerned with beauty. It offered the evening's most complete rewards, of seeing the dancers at their lyrical best and of savoring Taylor's ability to harmonize movement and music in unpredictable ways.
If "Aureole" defied convention in the '60s, "Troilus and Cressida (Reduced)" does the same now. It's intentionally clumsy; the dancers trip and spill, jerk like windup dolls and lose their pants. Here, in his most recent work, Taylor reduces the Shakespeare to a few dirty jokes and some slapstick, with a cast of total boobs. Most dancers would take exception to looking oafish onstage, but this proudly comedic crew, led by Lisa Viola, the Lucille Ball of dance, charged in with relish.
After those high jinks, Taylor took us to Hell. "Banquet of Vultures" is by no means a new idea; the choreographer clearly pays homage to Kurt Jooss's groundbreaking "The Green Table" of 1932. Nor is it Taylor's first apocalyptic view of humankind at its alienated worst; take "Last Look" from 1985, for example. Taylor is acutely sensitive to our base nature, having examined it in such works as the elegant-turned-animalistic "Cloven Kingdom." As in these other works, the wellspring of evil is within the human heart -- particularly, in "Banquet," in the heart that holds the power.
Taylor puts his self-described presidential figure right in the middle of the battlefield, watching stonily as agonies fell the troops. Trusnovec, all angles and edges, dances the role with surgical exactitude, and his eyes were sharpest of all, cold and unflinching. After he violates a female recruit, kills her and tosses her aside, the spotlight shifts upstage to a second power figure in a suit and tie. Wracked as if by inner demons, throwing himself to the stage and rising again, this man is has a clear identity as well: He'll be the next sicko to wage war.
Taylor makes a piercing statement. What felt freshest about this piece was the face-to-face encounter between the bureaucrat and the grunt who does his dirty work. But I'm not eager to see this piece again. Danced in near-darkness, it looked -- and at times felt -- like other end-of-the-world, we're-all-doomed works. In its obvious topicality, it lost complexity. It was not easy on the ear with its screeching score for oboe and orchestra by Morton Feldman.
Nor was it easy to watch, partly because much of it felt familiar. And given his great capacity to surprise, that's the most unusual territory of all for Paul Taylor.