The Paul Taylor Dance Company did it again, as it has so often in the past. In the second program of its week-long run at the Eisenhower Theater, the troupe gave us an evening of dance that left one awestruck at the power of choreographic art, and at the ability of dancers -- who are, after all, just people -- to transform themselves into beings of divine radiance.
Tuesday's opening night was splendid in its way, affording a first glimpse of Taylor's recent, sumptuously exuberant "Arden Court," among other things. But one sensed that this wasn't an occasion of particular inspiration for the company, and the performance level fell short of the troupe's known maximum. Last night, by contrast, was electric from beginning to end. The program brought another Washington premiere, this time of a bizarrely enigmatic opus called "House of Cards" that declares itself a masterwork in every gesture, as well as two other Taylor dances that rank with his finest -- "Profiles" and "Airs." The dancing, to boot, was a parade of marvels, individual and collective. An ecstatic afterglow followed one out of the theater, as the range, depth and virility of Taylor's work continued to sink in.
"House of Cards" is a mystery, in more ways than one -- it is tantalizingly elusive in its myriad symbolisms, and at the same time it has the inexplicable emotional force that belongs to a deeply resonant sacred allegory. Cynthia O'Neal's body togs put the dancers in black and red, the colors of playing-card suits, except for Bettie de Jong, a sort of fashion queen-deity figure, who's given a long, silver, '20s-style gown with a feathered turban atop. Mimi Gross' upscrolling backdrop reveals, amidst undulant bands of flat color, images of an open door, an Art Deco radio, an armchair and the Chrysler building spire. The dancing -- with de Jong ruling the roost, the dancers executing her commands, toting her about the stage, falling prostrate at her feet -- alternates between saucily animated, turbulent, jazzy sections and bluesy passages dominated by leaning, dragging, slouching, lurching and flopping movements.
What does it all mean? A hundred possibilities suggest and immediately cancel themselves, and the stage is in such constant flux that nothing is in place long enough to validate or refute any momentary hypothesis. The music is Darius Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde," much influenced by the composer's contact with American black jazz, and composed in 1923 for a celebrated creation-myth ballet with sets by Fernand Leger. Indeed, Taylor's work begins with imagery very akin to that of this earlier piece -- a revolving mass of bodies spins off into various animal species, and eventually into Man and Woman (Christopher Gillis and Ruth Andrien, in the newborn pink costumes). But Taylor's title, like his choreography and the decor, suggests ironies and riddles that have nothing to do with naive primitivism.
Described in words this way, "House of Cards" may sound eminently collapsible -- not just baffling, but incoherent. Nothing could be less true. It all makes complete internal sense, and the competing currents of interpretive meaning only bestow a richly stimulating ambiguity. Beside which, the choreographic invention stands on its own as pure Taylor magic.
The program began, delightfully enough, with Taylor's extravagantly frisky jest of 1978, "Diggity."