Guys and Dolls

Tin heart: Paul Taylor's Antique Valentine.

Throughout his long career, Paul Taylor has taken wicked pleasure in creating obstacle courses for dancers. He’s commissioned sets from Alex Katz that ingeniously block their way (Last Look, Sunset, Diggety) or block our view of them (Private Domain). He’s also applied his devilish challenges directly to the performers’ bodies, “crippling” them (as in Dust), or, notably in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), confining them to the flat, profiled stance of Egyptian friezes and having them fold their fingers at the middle joint to thwart their articulation.

In his company’s regular springtime run at the City Center, Taylor introduced the local audience to his latest venture on this terrain. Antique Valentine, set to bits of classical music rendered on music boxes, player piano, and mechanical organ, turns the dancers into wind-up dolls. Despite the goofy humor the surface of the piece proposes, the transformation is a nasty one, and the sardonic comment it makes on our aspiration to the civilities of social life and, from there, to the ecstatic condition of love is typical of Taylor at his most sardonic.

The choreography provides no contrast to the automaton state, so it yields no drama and no resolution. And the mechanical movement per se is of limited interest, though Lisa Viola, as the leading lady, executes it to uncanny perfection. The only memorable aspect of Antique Valentine is its disturbing suggestion of a malevolent god who robs dancers of the very resources that define them – fluency, lushness, extravagant unfettered energy – and then stands back to watch as the squashed bug keeps moving.

The second novelty of the run was the company premiere of Black Tuesday, commissioned last year by American Ballet Theatre. As he did with the marvelous Company B, made for the Houston Ballet, Taylor created the piece on his own troupe, subsequently, after its premiere on classical turf, reclaiming it for his own repertory. Over and over again, we’ve seen that Taylor choreography annexed by classical troupes – the work is much in demand – looks decidedly better on the Taylor performers. Steeped in the choreographer’s idiosyncratic style of motion, his people are speaking their native language. The classical crew is struggling, albeit nobly, with a foreign tongue.

Black Tuesday is an exception. ABT’s production was better – because of the nature of the work. Set to popular songs from the Depression, the piece is a revuelike string of numbers, each a clever take on the response of the era’s underclass to its bleak circumstances. Like the music, that response is mostly spunky, occasionally sentimental. And, as is typical of the Janus-minded Taylor, there’s one sudden plunge into genuine grief. If the choreography were part of a Broadway show, you’d be down-on-your-knees grateful, but it offers little more than superficial gleam. ABT’s dancers gave it just the sharp, bright showbiz performance it requires. The Taylor dancers (with Patrick Corbin, Annmaria Mazzini, and Silvia Nevjinsky in the plum roles) are excellent in their own way, but they seem to be looking for something beyond the sheer entertainment value of the piece – a complexity, both of mood and of motion – that the dance simply doesn’t possess.

These days, the choreography in Broadway musicals is the same from one show to another. I suppose that with so much money riding on these productions, the people in charge opt for safety, relying on what’s worked for recent megahits. What works, apparently, is the standard “number” that originated in vaudeville, brought up to the highest possible pitch. I saw three new entries – Oklahoma!, Sweet Smell of Success, and another show still in preview – in a single week, emerging stunned by the unremitting dazzle and frenetic agitation, as well as desperate for a sign of originality. Where is Jerome Robbins when we need him? Where, for that matter, is Agnes de Mille?

De Mille’s choreography for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 Oklahoma! played no small part in the show’s earning landmark status, not just through its verve and lyricism but also by blending into the narrative, extending and deepening it. The choreography was advanced for its day, drawing on the modern-dance and ballet vocabularies of the concert stage as well as on the usual jazz and tap genres. The celebrated “Laurey’s Dream” sequence even dared to annex some Freudian theory about the ambiguities of sexual attraction. But the original dances were no doubt considered too tame when London’s Royal National Theatre staged the revival of the show that just opened here. So Susan Stroman, Broadway’s current darling, was called in to hype things up.

Stroman sticks to De Mille’s scenario, relentlessly administering shots of adrenaline at every turn. She’s terrific at letting a small movement phrase grow in exuberance until the entire stage is wildly animated. But she does this to excess, adding gymnastic tricks for emphasis, and the cumulative effect is exhausting. Worse, she’s unable to find a latter-day equivalent to the homey innocence of De Mille’s tone; in her hands, the looming threat (and lure) of the “bad guy” escalates to something as close as you can get onstage to rape. Up to date in Kansas City, indeed!

In contrast to Stroman, who’s nothing if not a seasoned practitioner, Christopher Wheeldon is a newcomer to the Broadway scene. He comes from the classical-dance field, where he’s currently resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet. The movement he’s designed for Sweet Smell of Success has none of Stroman’s insistent panache, but it’s clearly aspiring to it. Restricted largely to incidental stuff for a Greek-style chorus, Wheeldon seems to have taken his inspiration from a heavy dose of retro-movie-going. Just like his more experienced colleague, he produces what’s required – everything sleek, feisty, and equivalent in dance terms to the show surrounding it, which is miked up to a decibel level that drowns out all but the obvious.

Paul Taylor Dance Company
At the City Center.
Choreographed by Susan Stroman; at the Gershwin Theater.
Sweet Smell of Success
Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon; at the Martin Beck Theater.

Photo by Carol Pratt.

Guys and Dolls