It takes a genius to upstage another genius, and that's about what Paul Taylor accomplished last night in his deliciously berserk dance version of Igor Stravinsky's hallowed, epoch-making score, "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"). The madcap new opus was given as a "world preview" (the first performance anywhere, but the troupe prefers to save the term "premiere" for New York) to a packed house at Lisner Auditorium, as the Taylor company -- celebrating its 25th anniversary this year -- opened a week of Washington performances with an altogether smashing program.
Tens of choreographers have tried their hands at "Sacre," but none before Taylor has had the churzpah to approach it without "reverence." Taylor uses this musical masterpiece as if no one bad ever told him that's what is was. He scraps the idea of pagan fertility rites, except by way of oblique parody, and instead treats the score as if it were simply a fiendishly interesting piece of music, which, of course, it assuredly is. This enables him to let us hear it from an utterly fresh standpoint, divorced from the sacrosanct mystique that otherwise surrounds it. And in devising for it a dance charade of ever so brittle, arch and waspish humor, he divines qualities in Stravinsky's music that were heretofore invisible.
The music gives us a jolt from the start, because what we hear isn't the familiar orchestral version, but the composer's piano-duet arrangement. Taylor's choice here was a brilliant stroke -- it's like seeing the original black-and-white print of a movie later remade as a technicolor extravaganza, and it conveys the same feeling of purity restored.
That isn't to say that the piano "Sacre" is superior -- as music -- to the orchestral realization, but just that, as a dance score, it allows for emphasis on a wholly different range of musical traits. The principle of reducing dimensions, moreover, is carried over into every aspect of Taylor's production. It's apparent in the flat profile of the dancing (in clear homage to Vaslav Nijinsky's original "Sacre" choreography of 1913), and it's reflected also in John Rawlings' spare, droll props and set pieces, as well as in his predominantly black, white and gray costumes.
Taylor's "Sacre" is also a dance-within a dance. Subtitled "The Rehearsal," it begins with the warm-ups of a dance class presided over by a blankly imperious Rehearsal Mistress (Bettie de Jong) in a cossak outfit. What the troupe "rehearses" is a plot out of Fu Manchu or some other pennydreadful whodunit, involving a Private Eye (Christopher Gillis), a Girl with 'babe-in-arms (Ruth Andrien), an Oriental Crook (Elie Charlb), his Stooge (Lila York) and his Mistress (Monica Morris), with the "corps de ballet" depicting henchmen, cops and "bar maidens."
The central action concerns the kidnapping of the infant, the jailing of the private dick, his escape and retrieval of the child, and a satirical stage-strewn-with corpses ending that leaves only one cast member -- the Girl -- still "alive." The coda returns us to the dance classroom, with the Rehearsal Mistress looming ominously over the drained, supine figures of her charges.
Despite the two-dimensionality of its form, this "Sacre" has layer upon layer of implication, touching upon, for example, the relation of dancers to parentage, the tribal mechanisms of the dance studio, and many other things. Taylor has called it an "exercise in style" it's also a study in wit, in triple entendre, and in the liberation of imagination through self-imposed constraint. It's a pity the week will bring only one repeat of "Sacre" (Friday evening).
No justice can be done here to the evening's other premiere, the first local showing of the stunningly original, surrealistic "Nightshade," to piano music of Scriabin; or to the performances of the lugubriously comical "Three Epitaphs," and especially, the neo-classic "Aurole," restored to its full lyrical euphoria by an inspired cast. Suffice it for now to say it would be hard to imagine a more thrilling evening of dance.