"Paul Taylor: Two Landmark Dances" is the title of the latest installment in public TV's splendid "Dance in America" series, a 60-minute show to be aired at 8 tonight on Channel 26. "Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal)" and "Arden Court" are indeed landmark works, as most recent efforts by choreographer Taylor have tended to be, and no dance enthusiast--whether he or she has seen these pieces on the stage yet or not--will want to miss the televised versions. Dance on video, however, is invariably a trade-off situation between the things a television camera can and cannot do in pinch-hitting for the theatrical experience. In this instance, both works lose more than they gain. The inherent limitations of the TV medium account for part of the loss, and the rest is due to the particular conditions under which this production took place.
The program was taped from live performances by the Taylor company at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., this past summer, and this circumstance immediately restricted the possibilities for lighting, shooting and editing, as compared with studio production. If some previous Taylor televisings under similar conditions weathered such obstacles more successfully, the reasons may be sought in the specific character of the dance works thus treated--"Le Sacre" and "Arden Court" both present exceptional challenges.
"Le Sacre" is Taylor's brilliantly mischievous version of a Stravinsky classic that has so often proven resistant to choreographic expression in the past. Taylor chose the composer's two-piano version of the score instead of the more familiar orchestral embodiment, and then ingeniously used its dry, spiky qualities as a springboard for a choreographic cartoon. The comedy operates on at least three simultaneous levels--as a deliberately "primitive" detective story; as a comment on the sexual and social politics of dance company rehearsals; and as a backhanded tribute to the flat, profiled movement style of Vaslav Nijinsky, the original "Sacre" choreographer. Program director Emile Ardolino shrewdly employs such filmic devices as fades and superimpositions to reinforce the cinematic qualities of the choreography, but such strategies don't adquately compensate for the inevitable musical and visual shortcomings. Television audio turns the Stravinsky score into a pallid echo of itself, and the small screen makes the elongated, planar choreography look like the gyrations of a miniature mechanical toy.
Similarly, in "Arden Court" there's simply too much happening, choreographically, over too wide a spatial field for an effective transfer to the TV "box." The piece, set to music by William Boyce, is one of Taylor's athletically ebullient, neoclassic abstractions--the compositional mastery is plainly recognizable on the screen, but the immediate visceral impact of a stage performance is largely dissipated.