Paul Taylor has been earning it for 50 years now, which is why his audience lovingly forgives him when, once in a while, he doles out utter nonsense. I don’t mean the truly great nonsense, like Dreamgirls; I mean the dances in which you can almost hear Taylor wondering Why am I still doing this? as he choreographs. On opening night of his annual City Center season, for instance, we got Le Grand Puppetier—a new take on Stravinsky’s Petrushka and a pointless one, apart from the chance to see Patrick Corbin, as the clown, brilliantly demonstrate once more how dancing can create character without surrendering the purity of the steps.
The other New York premiere was In the Beginning, which has more clarity and wit but certainly doesn’t leave you with the sense that Taylor has a whole lot to say about Genesis. He offers Adam and Eve, paradise and expulsion, and a torrent of begats—their offspring and their offspring’s offspring scramble into life through Adam and Eve’s widespread legs—while an unpredictable Jehovah keeps changing his mind about what he’s created. Accompanying these goings-on are excerpts from Carmina Burana, fortunately rendered in a minimally orchestrated version without chorus. In this format, Orff’s music is quite bearable—simple and childlike—but if you loathe Carmina Burana, it’s impossible to tune out what you know is horribly there. Both these new works are cartoon visions of control and rebellion, power and punishment—Taylor’s own wry view, perhaps, of half a century running a dance company.
The good stuff was in the older works, including Aureole, which was premiered in 1962 and gleams today like well-polished silver after being performed thousands of times all over the world. It’s still a dance that throws off revelatory moments with every bar of Handel’s music, and the marvel this time was Richard Chen See, jumping so lightly and precisely through the footwork here he might have been springing on clouds, yet expansive and powerful in his bearing. Piazzolla Caldera, Taylor’s 1997 fantasy on the tango, spirals right through all the conventions, emotions, and melodrama associated with the tango without ever actually showing one. Silvia Nevjinsky and Michael Trusnovec were especially glorious as they preened themselves in an extravagant soap opera of a duet.
Last season’s masterpiece, Promethean Fire, returned as the climax of this year’s opening-night benefit performance, which is understandable but at first seemed too bad. After that long business with the Stravinsky puppets, it was hard to regroup for one of the most serious and commanding dance works of our time. Even so, the instant the company appeared in a cluster onstage, looking straight into disaster without flinching, the audience was suddenly still. Not a sound was heard for the length of the dance. Taylor’s genius hardly needs confirming, but if he can tame the restless partygoers on a benefit night, clearly he can do anything.