Among Paul Taylor's myriad talents as a choreographer is his dexterity in evading pigeonholes. Despite his truly astounding creative fecundity, which has resulted in at least a dozen dance masterpieces over the last seven years alone, he never gets stuck in a rut. He repeats himself only in the sense that his artistic personality -- and the movement style he's evolved for its expression -- is as strongly flavored as a tawny port wine, and it runs through everything he does. But even when he's working with something old -- as he was in concocting "Lost, Found and Lost," which had its Washington premiere Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater -- he invariably turns it into something unmistakably new, fresh and revelatory.
The opus in question, created earlier this year, was the centerpiece of the program by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which began a week's run in the Dance America series Tuesday night. It's a corker -- strange, devious, at times uproariously funny and brimming with provocative ideas. Looking backwards is hardly characteristic of Taylor, but circumstance led him in this direction -- he's been working on a book of memoirs and not long ago did a TV retrospective; while preparing for it, he saw film footage of a celebrated Taylor program of 1957 in which he shocked audiences with the then-revolutionary use of ordinary, daily life postures and movements on stage. In reviewing this material, he got an urge to extend and retune it -- hence "Lost, Found and Lost." The title, like the work itself, rebounds with double entendres.
Designer Alex Katz has put the 10 dancers into black body tights spangled here and there with sequins; the men and women all wear head veils, and the only color is in the oddly matched shoes -- the effect is at once chic, tacky and faintly nostalgic. For the new musical score, company musical director Donald York has fashioned promiscuously slurpy arrangements -- a la Mantovani--of Muzak ballads. Accompanying the finale is "As Time Goes By," in itself another commentary on the work's import.
When the curtain rises the dancers, nonchalantly arrayed, are standing still in a variety of commonplace poses, and Taylor then takes them through a lexicon of pedestrian stances and motions -- one section features variations on folded arms, another concentrates on squatting and kneeling, and so forth. There are lots of jokes -- the dancers waiting indolently in a line, exiting one by one, like a queue for theater tickets or unemployment checks; heads turning every which way as eyes scour the ground or sky (for a dropped coin, a passing 'copter?), or looking suspiciously over a shoulder. Now and then the movement springs right out of dance class -- the men, for example, bouncing poker-faced in a monotonous series of sautes. At times there are slouchings and twitches that remind one that Twyla Tharp emerged from the Taylor milieu.
For all its intellectual stimulation, this isn't a "conceptual" piece, the way its 1957 forebears came close to being. It stands on its own as a choreographic essay, and Taylor has emphasized its theatricality by dressing the dancers not in "civvies"--as in '57--but rather in decidedly modish costumes. In a way, the work is an affirmation of dance as a theater art, despite its homespun roots -- an art of apparitions and semblances. Taylor doesn't want to show us natural, mundane movement "for its own sake," as the Judsonites did; rather, he's interested in suggesting parallels between the theater and the street, between the way people walk and cringe and strut through life, and the way these movements can be transfigured on stage into attitudinal and emotional metaphors.
The musical accompaniment for "Lost, Found and Lost," for lack of a large enough pit, was on tape. But for the first time in many years, we had the gratifying treat of live music for the evening's other two works. For "Images," with its evocation of Denishawn exotica and its exquisite lyric impressionism, York performed the Debussy pieces on the piano. For the sublimely neoclassical "Airs," York conducted a chamber orchestra in the Handel excerpts. The performances had many luminous moments, among them Christopher Gillis' breakneck solo in the penultimate section of "Images," Monica Morris' achingly poignant phrasing in "Airs," and the spectacular double duet (the same steps in two different tempos) by Gillis and splendid newcomer Kate Johnson in the latter piece. For reasons too elusive to pinpoint, however, the company as a whole wasn't quite as electric as we've known it so often to be -- on the old one-to-10 scale, this was maybe a 7 1/2 evening. Tonight the company presents a wholly different program Wednesday, featuring the Washington premiere of "Mercuric Tidings," set to music by Franz Schubert. Thereafter, The two programs will alternate through the final performance Sunday afternoon.