In the past several years, Paul Taylor has created some marvelous entertainments to engage today’s audience – lively, colorful excursions that give the viewer a swell time without demanding much ruminative thought or deep feeling in return. The most beguiling of these (let’s call them) serious pop works to date is the 1991 Company B, set to tunes of the Andrews Sisters. During the Taylor company’s recent New York run at City Center, the local premiere of Piazzolla Caldera – to a medley of tango music by the popular composer – revealed a hit in the same class.
It’s set in the tango dive of our imagination: lightbulbs swing from the ceiling in front of a blood-and-smoke-stained backdrop. Santo Loquasto, the set’s designer, has outdone himself with the costumes. He’s put the seven men in varied takes on the thuggish sexiness of dark, form-flaunting trousers and muscle-revealing tops and given the five women sheer, darkly flowered dresses that fly up as the night creatures whirl to reveal triangles of flesh where the tops of black stockings provocatively fail to meet shiny black bikini panties. With only occasional quotes from conventional tango vocabulary, the choreography elaborates upon the genre’s theme of a dangerous eroticism that encourages passionate love and sudden death.
Taylor’s ingeniousness is visible everywhere in this dance: It’s in the manipulation of odd numbers, so that when the obligatory male-female face-off yields to couple dancing, two guys are paired and given a sensational duet of their own. (This is both the out-of-the-closet statement Taylor has largely avoided and a reference to the history of the tango, which includes men frankly dancing body to body.) Taylor’s sheer, subtle know-how is evident, too, in the suggestion of plot that threads through the piece, so that a solo for a woman anguished by her lack of a mate is suddenly recalled at the end of the piece, as she falls dead (a suicide, one assumes) at the feet of a throng exulting in the climax of its orgy. As usual, Taylor maintains his chosen atmosphere faultlessly; you can’t imagine a single move in Piazzolla Caldera happening in daylight; every last bit of this dance belongs to the sultry dark.
If you’ve ever wondered about the inner workings of cults, Taylor – a longtime connoisseur of the macabre – spells the matter out in vivid dance terms with The Word, given its world premiere in the New York season. Set to a made-to-order score by David Israel, the piece presents a sect of eleven men and women, brilliantly clad alike by Loquasto in white dress shirts, striped ties, and suspendered knickers – a weird take on British public-school-boy garb. (The women’s hair, slicked back into boyish dos, and the men’s mouths, as blatantly lipsticked as a drag queen’s, put the final touch on the perversity of this uniform.)
The members of the group, which might be either political or religious, take turns – almost randomly, it would seem – at being hysterical, demagogic leader and brainwashed follower. The chief of the moment, a caricature of megalomaniac power, is repeatedly mounted on the shoulders of his acolytes; from this position he gesticulates furiously with his arms and contorts his face as if screaming orders, epithets, dire prophesies. His disciples (or conscripts) shuttle between the mechanical maneuvers of automatons and the writhing of souls co-opted by evil who retain just enough moral awareness to feel self-loathing.
In showing us this much, Taylor is objectively describing a dismaying aspect of human social behavior. But as if to probe further the question of whether the individual has the power to resist mob thinking, he introduces a demon: That fast and furious mover Lisa Viola, dressed as a green serpent, periodically appears to whip up the action, indicating that herdlike, wicked aberration is predestined, inevitable.
Though a handsome piece of craftsmanship, The Word isn’t Taylor’s most effective exploration of psychic madness. Speaking in Tongues and, especially, Last Look are more potent. For all the grotesque frenzy of its individual moves, The Word is too calmly ordered and too predictable to suck you in or sweep you away. And that snake is too Disneyish to take seriously – or is the ever-wry Taylor being ironic and using this figure to mock villains and weaklings who refuse responsibility for the harm they wreak, claiming, “The devil made me do it”?