In a second program at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday night, as fully rewarding as the first, the Paul Taylor Dance Company showed once again why no other contemporary dance experience surpasses this one.
In Taylor's choreography, commonplace esthetic questions about form and substance don't arise -- the concordance of the two is obvious beyond challenge. Taylor's dances are statements, couched in his own pungent choreographic dialect, about the way it feels to live, to love, to be exalted, to suffer. The meanings of these statements may not be altogether clear in intellectual terms, or they may appear so ambivalent as to defy paraphrase. But the visceral responses his dances provoke tell all that can be told and more, in a language at once more primitive and profound than that of words.
It would be hard to think of a more vivid example of this than ". . . Byzantium," the 1984 Taylor opus that had its Washington premiere Saturday night. It's enigmatic, yet it's as moving as it is baffling. It's also a strange, even weird, work, disturbing in ways not wholly explained by its surface oddity, a trait shared by the Edgar Vare se music to which it is set. When you get through it, which is admittedly something of a struggle, you may feel emotionally disoriented and quite vague about the points the piece is making. But I would wager that you'll also be convinced Taylor knew both what he meant to say and exactly how to say it.
The title of the work and of its three sections -- "Past," "To Come" and "Passing" -- make reference to the William Butler Yeats poem "Sailing to Byzantium," which is also evoked by aspects of William Ivey Long's costumes and David Gropman's sets. I doubt that Taylor intends knowledge of the poetry to be a prerequisite for "understanding" the choreography -- he doesn't work that way. But the literary allusion, along with the mythic ambiance of the piece, do put one in mind of Taylor's past affiliation with Martha Graham. So too does the emphasis on sculptural configurations of the dancers' bodies. It's worth noting also that Taylor, like Yeats, deserted a youthful interest in painting to devote himself to another medium. ". . . Byzantium" has the look of icons in motion.
In "Past," the curtain rises to disclose a prop suggesting an abstract mosaic, and in front of it, a man and three women adorned in caps and gilt-emblazoned robes -- they could well be Yeats' "lords and ladies of Byzantium." By their hieratic gestures and poses, one takes them for nobles or saints or both. They seem austerely remote -- Taylor's assessment of ancient social, religious and political hierarchies?
In "To Come," against a larger version of the mosaic, the lords are joined by serfs, men and women with bare chests or midriffs, clearly subservient and submissive. One man (Christopher Gillis), however, bursts from the ensemble into a frenzied, spasmodic solo -- later he appears groveling on his knees, hands locked behind his back. In this same section, a new saint -- Karla Wolfangle, all in gold -- is inducted into the others' circle, and at the end, as all the holy aristocrats shoot an arm skyward, the surrounding swarm of serfs is flung to the floor. Taylor's grim vision of a totalitarian future, perhaps.
Vare se's music is at its most acrid and cacophonic in "Passing," and it's matched by movement that is chaotic, violent and obsessively erotic. A number of dancers freak out in seizure-like solos, and other passages suggest gang rape and an orgy. The color scheme for this section changes to red, white and blue, and it has been read as a portrait of present-day America; if so, it's an almost unrelievedly bleak one.
Taylor originally had the sections arranged in a different order -- "Passing", then "Past" and finally "To Come." I'm not so sure that Yeats' original, chronological sequencing wouldn't prove more forceful still. In any case, the work was set forth by the 13 company members with a kind of full-blooded conviction not often equaled on the dance stage. Jennifer Tipton's haunting lighting schemes also contributed much to the overall impact.