Déja Moves

Modern art claims to operate on the principle of “making it new,” but the current agenda of the Paul Taylor Dance Company appears to be business as usual. A regular harbinger of spring in New York, the group played its usual two weeks at the City Center. According to custom, it duly offered two new Taylor works. As expected, since Taylor typically compartmentalizes his dual view of life, one of the dances was dark, the other sunny. The fact that neither piece merits an extended life made all the more apparent how much Taylor was falling back on his now familiar choreographic devices.

Black Angels, a quartet by George Crumb, provides the requisite macabre background for Fiends Angelical. Here a goddess (Silvia Nevjinsky, in a horned headdress and flowing gown of many colors) presides over an exotic bestial tribe that dwells in a dusky cavelike space intermittently pierced by glaring light. Two figures (Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola) emerge from the eight-member ensemble to couple and then strangle each other while still in their Siamese-twin embrace. Hovering over the huddled corpses – the half-willing victims, perhaps, of ritual sacrifice – the goddess exercises her incantatory powers to bring them back to life, thereby, it’s implied, perpetuating the existence of the clan.

There’s nothing in Fiends Angelical that you haven’t seen dozens of times – and more forcefully – in Taylor’s oeuvre: the aboriginal society the choreographer imagines with relish when he’s in his archeological-anthropological mode; the ritual magic, complete with hieratic hand signals; the theme of cyclical death and resurrection – and its corollary, the disappearing act in which central figures repeatedly emerge from a small ensemble and fade back into it without being caught in the act. Even the references to Martha Graham (a goddess of equivocal nature in Taylor’s early career) are there: Nevjinsky pulls a blazing red cord from the fallen couple as if it were a length of their entrails, directs the chorus to manipulate it into the shape of a star, then seizes it back and viciously bites it in two. This multiple and surely sardonic reference to the terrible red ribbon in Cave of the Heart (Graham’s take on Medea) and the fateful rope of Night Journey (Oedipus and Jocasta) is the only element of Fiends Angelical that has any edge. The dance on the whole is thin and vague, cobbled together from customary maneuvers by, it would seem, a weary creator doing his perennial duty.

Dandelion Wine, the breath-of-spring foil to the menace-charged Fiends Angelical, is slightly more engaging. Set to a pleasant violin concerto by Pietro Locatelli, a lesser-known composer of the late-Baroque era, it’s danced on a pristine white floor that might well repulse any footfall not committed to an unadulterated spirit of sweetness and light. Richard Chen See, benign and buoyant in chrome-yellow work clothes, represents the sun, beaming paternally on a garden of seven pretty flowers – that is, youths in love with love. A touching passage, one of the piece’s several trios, casts the tiny, hoydenish Julie Tice as a childlike outsider yearning to be part of a teen-dream romance. Had Taylor been rereading Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding? The charm of his take on the situation is that the golden boy and girl, Orion Duckstein and Amy Young, expand their bubble of radiant happiness to let the waif in.

Improbable idealized romance and the diffusion of love over a communal group after its initial embodiment in a specific couple have for decades ranked among Taylor’s chief obsessions. Wisely, he’s formed the habit of cutting the potentially saccharine nature of such material. In Dandelion Wine he does so with several of his other regular devices, among them a virtuoso display of craft in the changes rung on the trio theme. Less successful in this piece is another typical Taylorism – working with impediments. In the past, Taylor has made brilliant use of a stage crowded with design elements that create a formidable obstacle course for the performers. (The cheerful Diggety, with its metal doggy cutouts, and the profoundly horrifying Last Look, with its jagged mirrored columns, are two memorable examples.) In a similar vein, he’s imposed arbitrary physical constrictions on the dancers’ own anatomy – as with the clenched hands of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). (Just try dancing at full throttle with your fingers curled up.) In Dandelion Wine he engages his dancers in gnarled daisy-chain formations, challenging them to move without severing their tightly twined connections to their fellows. At first merely uninteresting, the ploy eventually descends into slapstick comedy, undermining the prevailing halcyon tone of the work. Once the mood has been broken, it’s impossible to retrieve – because, I suspect, its initial statement is wan.

Even with these disappointing new works, the company has much to offer. Taylor’s astute craft as a choreographer functions even when his inspiration flags, and his golden oldies – though not always danced with their earlier élan – certainly haven’t turned to brass. Admittedly, the canned music is dismaying (send money!). The costumes, however, are constantly imaginative and elegant; both new works were dressed by the resident designer, Santo Loquasto. And Jennifer Tipton never fails to light the stage evocatively. The dancers, if blander these days than Taylor’s earlier choices, continue to be gratifying. Consolation for the loss of favorites who have moved on is provided by a stream of unique, gifted up-and-comers like the rangy, mercurial Michael Trusnovec and the dulcet Amy Young. But when the new work is tepid and goes on being tepid for some seasons – the past dozen years have produced only one piece, Company B, that’s sure to last, with Piazzolla Caldera a maybe – all the rest is just not enough.

Paul Taylor Dance Company
At City Center.

Déja Moves