Monday, November 12, 2007

Dance: Paul Taylor Dance Company at Guggenheim's Works and Process

The few times that I've seen Taylor's company, I've not enjoyed it, but I went to their Works and Process show nevertheless, because one should take every opportunity one can to see old famous people before it's too late. Taylor's company is celebrating their 53rd year, which means that the founder and choreographer must be a minimum of 75 years of age (in fact, he is 76), and his part-Reagan, part-Sinatra, part homosexual feline (think Merce Cunningham) persona brought thrills and giggles to the ladies of the audience, who were mostly in their sixties. Mostly, he just annoyed me, with his hollow jokes, not actually self-effacing self-effacing humor, and a cheap shot at George W. (a speaker isn't very good if he can't even pull off a cheap shot at George W.) He didn't redeem himself in my eyes, but he did thrill everyone else. I think I offended a woman after the show who asked me what I thought; I told her that his work is like Impressionist paintings: people like it because it's pleasant and easy.

What I've found tedious—even noxious—in Taylor is a kind of extreme lightness. The classic pieces (like the famous Esplanade) are gleeful, breezy, white (I'm sorry). The dancers have open, beneficent, smiling faces, which I've always found extremely distracting. The Works and Process program was extremely diverse, showcasing very short excerpts from six pieces, plus a seventh piece in entirety, ranging from 1971 to 2007. The breadth was helpful to me, insofar as it demonstrated that Taylor's dancers do not always dance with gleeful, beneficent faces; the choreographer does create pieces that dramatize sadness, fear, and frustration, and his dancers express these emotions on their faces as well. What does remain, however, is that the face, for Taylor, is part of the dance, and that the dance always has some emotive, and often narrative, drive. While he was not asked by the moderator, Suzanne Carbonneau, to address his dancers' beneficent, open, dewy smiles, he did speak for a moment about the face, saying that in his early choreography (none of which was showcased, unfortunately), the face was deadpan. I wanted to hear more about this, but, on the whole, Taylor did not elaborate much on anything; he answered questions with one simple sentence—often a toss-off bit of humor—and waiting for Carbonneau's next prompt.

Another question that Carbonneau should have, but didn't, ask relates to the rigidity of the Taylor torso. Taylor incorporates hinges into his work much more often than backbends (a dropping back that creates a straight line from knee to shoulder rather than a curved one), and almost never shifts his dancers' torsos in the rolling or snake-like motion we see in other modern choreography (the hinge is a Graham movement, but the real guttural Graham movement, the contraction, seems to be missing in Taylor's oeuvre). I want to know why he preserves that rigidity; I wonder (and this is an uneducated guess) whether it is because he doesn't have a very mobile torso personally—after all, we create what we know, what we feel, what we are. Ultimately, that's why I think Taylor himself is somewhat shallow; his dances have no viscera.

All of that is said with the exception of a short piece called The Boulevard of Broken Dreams from Black Tuesday performed by (the exquisite) Annmaria Mazzini as a disappointed, down on her luck whore. It was strange to see this piece, which actually has emotional depth of the kind you usually only get at Ailey, slipped in between the aren't-we-ashamed-the-80s-ever-happened Speaking in Tongues and the modern-relationships-are-hell-but-we-don't-feel-it-anyway-psycho-drama of Lines of Loss. The program closed with the gleeful, breezy, Esplanade-like Arden Court, almost totally negating the three minutes of depth Mazzini brought to the audience (which, by the way, probably went unnoticed by most of the septuagenarian crowd). After the show, the same woman whom I offended also said that she wanted to thank Paul for such a feel-good evening, those being so rare nowadays. I tried not to roll my eyes and told her that people these days really have no interest in feel-good evenings, hedging with some nonsense about the post-modern condition. But in all honesty, Taylor does make feel-good dance, which I read simply as shallow dance. Aren't feel-good movies shallow? Pop songs? Chick lit? Just because modern dance is Modern Dance doesn't get it off the hook; it's not automatically intellectual or avant-garde or relevant. Don't think I have anything against feeling good—that is, a good time—that is, real expansive glory (think Compagnie Kaf├»g), because it thrills me. But keep your hollow, reasonless, denial-ridden, 1950s, 1980s, Regan, in the closet, false-front cheer for yourself. I want no part.

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