Even in a less than sharply honed performance, Paul Taylor's "Esplanade" brought down the house at Lisner Auditorium last night, as it invariably does. It's easy enough to see why. One would have to look to the masterworks of George Balanchine to find so inspired a congruence of musical and choreographic gesture, and for kinesthetic thrills -- not just the plunges, slides and aerial dare-deviltry of the finale, but also, for example, the ingeniously dramatic use of slow crawls in the first adagio -- there's nothing quite like it anywhere in dance.
The rest of last night's program by the Paul Taylor Dance Company -- the last of three the troupe will be alternating through the weekend -- reminded us that in his youth Taylor studied painting, and was befriended early on by such plastic artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
All three works exhibited Taylor's vivid pictorial sensibilities, not only in choice and character or decor but in the dancing itself, so clear and forceful in linear design that the dancers often seem to be, so to speak, engraving the air with movement.
The revived "Big Bertha" (1970) is also one of the very few Taylor pieces with a conntected narrative structure. Big Bertha is the name both of an old-fashioned band machine, such as one might see at a county fair or carnival, and of its mechanical leader (Bettie de Jong). Only Bertha also turns out to be a sort of technological Pandora, under whose beckonings a seemingly wholesome domestic group of father, mother and daughter becomes a lustfully ravaging trio, and before we're through we've got incest, rape and bloody mayhem on our hands.
It's like one of Edward Albee's earlier revelations of the seamier underside of Americana. It is, however, not a playlet but a dance -- it's all cannily worked out in dance terms and much abetted by the suspicious innocence of Alec Sutherland's props and costumes.
The graphic side of Taylor is again evident in "Profiles," a work not seen here before on TV, in which the dancers move with a calculated stiffness and angualarity, emphasizing lateral planes in a manner Taylor also explores in the new "Le Sacre du Printemps" but also as far back as "Three Epitaphs" (1956). Here too there's a wonderful concordance between the movement and Jan Radzynksi's compelling music, with its narrow twitterings and squirmings.
The decor, by Alex Katz, for "Diggity" is defiantly enigmatic. Without it, one would say this is a genial, brisk, athletic dance in which the dancers spend perhaps more time than usual on all-fours. What other reasons there may be for the little dog cutouts all over the stage, or for the huge lettuce prop, or the woman in bra and bloomers, is anybody's guess. Yet, within a wacky logic known only to Taylor, they all seem to fit.