The dances of Paul Taylor strike home in so many ways at once -- visually, viscerally, intellectually, dramatically -- that one feels one's senses, mind and emotions being fully engaged by a single pull at the center. The fact was driven home again during the Taylor company's second performance at the Eisenhower Theater Saturday night, in a program that seemed to encompass a lifetime's worth of insight.
The evening led off with "Dust" (1977), set to Poulenc's "Concert Champetre." Of all Taylor's works in that strange, perturbing, gothic vein of his, this is surely the strangest and most perturbing. It is also mysteriously moving, in ways none of its separate elements seems fully able to account for.
On the surface "Dust" is a danse macabre. The atmosphere is medieval: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" comes to mind. The dancers look like plague victims with their curious deformities, the near-naked look of their flesh-colored tights and the apelike lopings and crawlings they get into. tGene Moore's set calls for a heavy black rope dangling to the floor, bulging with a thick knot that manages to sugest both a hangman's noose and nameless terrors.
Some of the dancers wrap others into black shrouds and carry them offstage like corpses. Some hold one arm stiffly crooked into the body as if it were maimed, and in the last movement, one of these (Susan McGuire) dances a long solo with a group of "blind" companions, until she, too, losed her power of sight. One passage has odd grovelings, another self-flagellation, and still another resembles a beggar's orgy. Yet the final image is one of upward struggle and hope.
There's nothing either gross or sentimental about Taylor's treatment of this material. The solo harpsichord lends a tone at once antique and modern, and the dancing, like the score, vacillates between solemnity and ebullience.
Like so many of Taylor's works, "Dust" can be "read" in many ways. Perhaps it's about the feeling most of us have at some time or other that we're disfigured or crippled as we make our way through life. Perhaps it's also a statement about how dancers feel about their bodies as limbs and organs fight the inhuman demands of the art. Perhaps it's simply about mortality and dread of the unknown. More likely the power of "Dust" derives from its fusion of these and other subliminal implications into a gripping but unfathomable unity.
It's hard to think of any other choreographer who could have taken us from a work like "Dust" to the daffy mischief of "From Sea to Shining Sea" with its comic-strip Americana, and thence to the sublimely invigorating neo-classisism of "Esplanade." But then, we've known for a long time that Taylor is one of a kind.