By virtue of its power and eloquence, Paul Taylor's choreography constitutes one of the major wonders of the contemporary dance world. There's fresh evidence of this in the latest segment of public television's "Dance in America" series, labeled "Paul Taylor: Roses and Last Look," airing tonight at 6 on Channel 26. If you are already a devotee and would like to introduce a friend to the sublimities of modern dance at its best, you'd have to search far and wide for a better starting point.
Tonight's program will be all the more a treat for Washington admirers of Taylor's work because Taylor and his troupe have made only one stage appearance here in the past four years (in earlier days, the company was an annual visitor). Featured in the troupe's last engagement, at the Kennedy Center Opera House in December 1985, were the Washington premieres of precisely those works --
"Roses" and "Last Look" -- that "Dance in America" has now transcribed for the TV screen. Although no canned version can replace the excitement of the company's live presence, this one is especially effective in capturing the choreographic essence.
The two pieces represent opposite ends of Taylor's expressive spectrum. The apocalyptic "Last Look" deals with the grimmest sides of life, setting forth in abstract terms a world in which individual psyches and the whole social fabric are coming apart at the seams. "Roses," by contrast, is about love. Set to swooning music by Wagner ("Siegfried Idyll") and Heinrich Baermann (Adagio for Clarinet and Strings), it presents in its first half five couples who ring changes on the theme of the interlacing of bodies and souls.
Taylor seems to have a limitless capacity to devise movement that wells up out of the music and mirrors, with a startling economy of means, the lyrical heart of the matter. In one particularly poignant duet danced by Christopher Gillis and Linda Kent, each member of the pair arches deeply back over the bent form of the other and executes a complete flip. The motif is multiply repeated, but each repetition brings with it an extension, variation and intensification of the idea, so that the effect of the whole passage is emotionally cumulative.
In this first section, to the Wagner music, the men are in gray and the women wear floor-length, almost formal black dresses. At the close, the five couples are seated facing the rear, contemplating what might be the past, the future, or some Platonic idealization of romance. Then a new couple strides on, all in white, and makes their predecessors' reverie concrete with a duet, now to the Baermann music, that looks more severely stylized and distilled than the rapturous dancing that came before. It is, so to speak, the classicized epitome of all that has thus far transpired, and its summation.
"Last Look" has a cyclical aspect too, starting and ending with the same image. But it's an image of a totally different sort -- a heap of bodies limp with exhaustion and despair. To an aptly anxious score by Donald York, with allusions to Ravel's morbidly frenetic "La Valse," the nine dancers slowly emerge from the opening heap to twitch, flail, tremble and stagger like a wretched cadre of plague victims, sometimes flopping violently on the floor as if in seizure, and sometimes lapsing into comalike stillness. At other times the "victims," racing wildly for escape, are stopped short by their own reflections, in the ingenious mirrored columns of Alex Katz's set, making the mood of entrapment a palpable image.
Between the two works there's some engaging documentary footage of the choreographer in his country home on Long Island's North Shore, talking about his life and work with a typically dry wit.
The videography has the look of lessons well learned, balancing close and long shots, and head-on views and dramatic angles, with an eye ever attentive to the clear exposition of Taylor's choreography. Among the program's other virtues, it now brings to 12 the number of Taylor masterworks that have been preserved on tape in the "Dance in America" series.