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Paul Taylor Dance Company and Mark Morris Dance Group

Posted on March 14, 2010

Paul Taylor Dance Company, City Center, New York – February 24-March 14, 2010
Mark Morris Dance Group, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York – February 23-27, 2010

By Jack Anderson

Mixed Bills
Brief Encounters,
Scudorama,
Runes,
Spindrift,
Piazzolla Caldera,
Public Domain,
Also Playing

Triple Bill
Behemoth,
Looky,
Socrates

Two distinguished choreographers opened engagements a day apart: the Mark Morris Dance Group, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Morris and Taylor are similar in several ways. Early in their careers, each was considered something of an enfant terrible, and both still create unusual works, yet ones with substance as well as novelty appeal.

As usual, Taylor offered a large repertory, and because from year to year it is not the same, one can compare old favourites with lesser-known pieces to discover what artistic kinship they may share. This year, many dances concerned the ambiguity of human relationships.

That was certainly a theme of one premiere, the appropriately titled Brief Encounters, to André Caplet’s orchestration of Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite. In this piece for 11 dancers, emotional alliances kept forming, only to melt almost instantly away, as people touched one another, but only momentarily, or leaped toward one another, only to pass on by. And what lovely people they were, as Santo Loquasto’s unusually skimpy black costumes most definitely revealed. Watching them, you could think how unfortunate it was that they never did get together, yet you could also imagine Taylor thinking that people, being mortal, are never together long enough, all encounters being inevitably brief.

In other dances, people stayed together for mysterious reasons, as if Taylor were fascinated by human mystery. Why do people creep and twitch through Scudorama? Why do women wrap themselves around men or rise up from them like antlers in the awesome but cryptic rituals of Runes? Who is the stranger apparently washed ashore in Spindrift? That stranger is played by Michael Trusnovec, who, in work after work, holds attention with strength of presence and clarity of phrasing. And what about the revellers in Piazzolla Caldera, which sizzled this season? How much are they showing off for one another and how much just to please themselves?

Taylor may believe that deciphering the literal meaning of an episode may not be important, provided that episode is as vivid as dream images can be. That’s one reason why we can enjoy his choreographic riddles, including the nonsense of Public Domain, in which things keep happening without apparent logic. When the work was new in 1968, dance-goers were told that each snippet in the accompanying collage by John Herbert McDowell was either already in the public domain or short enough that Taylor could employ it as a fair use quotation without fear of copyright infringement (a matter once again important in this time of pop music sampling). The resultant dance is all non-sequiturs, some actions seemingly related to the accompaniment, others blithely ignoring it. Nevertheless, despite its amusing little scenes, Public Domain as a whole was not as funny as I had remembered it. Or does memory play tricks?

Would memory play tricks when I see Taylor’s new Also Playing in the future? This season, I found it a funny tribute to old-time vaudeville shows, set to bouncy ballet music from Donizetti operas (some of which Balanchine used in Donizetti Variations). Taylor concocted examples of the kinds of dances that might well have turned up on vaudeville bills. These specific vaudevillians look like somewhat weary troupers in corny old acts. They provide bits of aesthetic statue posing. Jamie Rae Walker and Michael Apuzzo simper through a waltz. Michelle Fleet and Orion Duckstein batter each other in an apache number. Eran Bugge wiggles through an elaborate strip routine in which she never goes beyond removing her long white gloves. From time to time, Robert Kleinendorst, as a long-suffering stagehand, tidies the stage and at last he lets his fancies loose in a solo of his own. Taylor’s troupers may not be terribly talented, yet they do persevere. For them, the show must always go on, and that attitude gives Also Playing its wit and pathos.

Mark Morris offered only a single triple bill, yet it exemplified the breadth of his interests. Thus Morris, a music lover, revived his only unaccompanied dance, Behemoth, in which a large cast lumbered about like a great stupid beast, looking both slightly funny and somewhat sinister. Music for mechanical piano by Kyle Gann accompanied Looky, a comedy in which dancers kept gawking at invisible objects. The jokes went on too long, although it was always fun to watch the keys on the mechanical piano rise and fall with no one touching them.

The main attraction was the premiere of Socrates, to Erik Satie’s cantata based upon excerpts from Plato about Socrates, including a haunting description of his death. The cantata exists in several versions; Morris employed one for solo tenor (the eloquent Jean-Paul Fouchécourt) and pianist (Colin Fowler). The music, though austere, flows beautifully, as does Morris’ choreography, which sends 15 tunic-clad people walking, skipping, and gliding in what could be called a reinvention of Duncan dancing. The death scene, however, failed to convince me. Here, as if wishing to prevent a star performer from indulging in egocentric histrionics, Morris had several dancers portray Socrates. Unfortunately, this diluted Socrates became mild when it should have been serene.

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