Dance Place was packed to the rafters for Mark Taylor & Friends Saturday night and the crowd went wild over the performances. It was history repeating itself -- this was the Taylor troupe's third Dance Place appearance in as many seasons, and the response has always been gangbusters.
It's easy to see what audiences find exciting. Some local connections don't hurt -- though Taylor is based in New York, two of Washington's finest dancers, Mary Williford and Donna Gangloff, have performed with his group in recent years. The company's first appearance here, moreover, was the farewell event at the old Dance Place digs in Adams-Morgan (in January 1986). Hence the sight of the Taylor troupe triggers a native pride in the accomplishments of Dance Place. The move to a new, outlying neighborhood was a challenging hurdle for Washington's preeminent center for contemporary dance, and Taylor's annual returns are emblematic of the successful transition.
More fundamentally, there's the kinesthetic high Taylor consistently furnishes with his gung-ho movement style. The speed, athleticism and virtuosity bring immediate rewards in the thrills one experiences watching Taylor and the other six superbly skilled dancers of his troupe in action. The quasi-Tharpian push-pull of sexual attraction and antagonism, the cool, casual colloquialisms of Taylor's style, and the breakneck changes of direction and tempo are additional attractions.
And yet there's an odd paradox here, one that's not restricted to Taylor but rather runs like a debilitating undercurrent through much of postmodern dance. For all the outward variety and surface flash of Taylor's choreography, it doesn't have much staying power. Taylor knows movement from the inside, and there's nothing artificial or contrived about the phrases he so profusely invents. Indeed, it looks so natural most of his dances could be mistaken for improvisations.
And that, in a way, is the problem. Taylor's facility with movement outruns itself. It keeps the eye glued to instantaneous details as they unfold, but when it's all over it feels like running in place. Nothing much has happened and very little sticks, because no overall shape has evolved from the gush of movement, and no unified statement has emerged to give coherence to the succession of choreographic events. It's almost as if Taylor were punching out random combinations at the console of an imaginary preprogrammed movement synthesizer.
On the positive side, the two new works the troupe brought us this time showed that despite these reservations Taylor doesn't get stuck in choreographic ruts, but keeps coming up with fresh ideas. "Throb" was an interestingly gnomic solo marked by increasingly agitated arm slicings and thrashings, incisively danced by Williford (Taylor himself was scheduled to do the repeat performance this afternoon) to a haunting cello solo (abetted by electronic echoes) performed live by composer Elise Tobin. "Batucada," an ensemble piece to Brazilian samba music, mixed peppery, quick-stepping motifs from Latin social dance with Taylor's typical acrobatics in a briskly parodistic vein.
The works familiar from previous Dance Place visits were "Precinct," a nerve-racking battle-of-the-sexes number; "Ups and Downs in the Rococo," an erratic duet for two women incongruously matched to a Matthew Arne aria; and "Uneven Sentiment," for all seven dancers, still one of Taylor's most compelling pieces in its novel satirical effects and wryly original score by accordionist Guy Klucevsek.
Beside Taylor, Williford and Gangloff, the dancers were Barbara Canner, Jeff Lepore, Michael Nolan and Andy Wollowitz.