Leaps of Faith

Shakespearean Tragedy: Lisa Viola, Patrick Corbin, and members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Promethean Fire to music by Bach.Photo: Janet Levitt

In the last act of Othello, the tormented hero stands over his sleeping wife, whom he believes to be unfaithful, and readies himself to kill her. We know the truth, of course: Desdemona is faultless, but Iago has whipped up Othello’s jealousy in order to destroy him. Gazing at the wife he adores, Othello says in agony, “I know not where is that Promethean heat / That can thy light relume.” In other words, what he’s about to do is horribly final and possibly a huge mistake, but he’s going to do it anyway. From this moment of suffering—suffering that will culminate in catastrophe and make victims of the innocent and guilty alike—Paul Taylor takes the title of his new work, Promethean Fire.

This monumental dance, which received its New York premiere during the company’s recent season at City Center, isn’t about Othello; maybe it’s not even about September 11, though the solemnity and imagery beg for that association. Taylor, who’d rather suffocate than sound grandiose about his work, says Fantasia inspired it; and he uses the Bach-via-Stokowski music heard in the film. But I think Desdemona’s murder—cruel, inevitable, brought about by an inexplicable rage—serves as the right entry point to the dance, if only because her death is an entry point to the universal. Shakespeare operated on this scale when his ideas demanded it; here, Taylor does, too.

His full company of sixteen enacts the spectacle, though often you’d swear there were hundreds of them, holding hands in a human chain or pouring across the stage in long lines of solo flight. Once, they sail by with their hands crossed on their chests as if newly released from the grave. Stately rows of dancers appear, all mass and majesty in their formations; then disintegrate as bodies hurl themselves to the floor. And everything—the exalted and the broken, the flying and the crawling—seems to happen with the impersonal momentum of a prophecy being fulfilled. Early on, a harsh, ritualistic coupling takes place at center stage. Afterward, the man stands up with the woman wrapped so tightly around his head he’s blinded, staggering like Oedipus or Lear with his hands outstretched and helpless.

The same sense of vast forces at work permeates the duet for Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola that constitutes the dramatic heart of the dance. This section opens with a scene made unforgettable by its searing formality: One by one, all the dancers fling out their arms and topple, writhing, into a pile. Corbin rises amid the bodies, locates Viola, and pulls her from the heap. At first, they move in careful, carved gestures, hardly seeming to touch even when he lifts her or she supports him, as if each were dancing with a memory, not a partner. Anger plunges through the duet later on, showing up in their fists and clenched bodies, in their pushing and pulling. Finally, they’re at opposite corners of the stage when she runs straight at him, turns in midair, and lands in his arms—an act of faith that transforms the atmosphere of the dance. Other couples join them, and a gentle buoyancy sweeps through the company. In the last moments, the dancers assemble into a tableau that’s perfectly abstract yet manages to suggest the glowing figures in a stained-glass window. Taylor is a contented atheist, but no matter where you believe higher powers dwell, a good place to go looking for them is a performance of Promethean Fire.

There were many other reasons to keep running back to City Center during the Taylor season, including a radiant revival of Esplanade, still bringing down the house after 28 years, and Black Tuesday, a suite of brilliant riffs on Depression-era songs. A couple of pieces notably overdue for retirement were programmed, too: Last Look (1985), a somber stage full of miserable writhing that only a severe depressive could love, and Images (1977), an odd, tedious exercise to Debussy occasionally brightened by the sight of puppety men in briefs with matching armbands, which made one hope against hope that the whole thing was a Martha Graham parody. Taylor rarely nods, but when he does, he’s out cold.

Then the curtain went up on Dream Girls, and all complaints—indeed, all rationality—disintegrated. For his second New York premiere this season, Taylor turned to a barbershop quartet called the Buffalo Bills and choreographed ten of their classic numbers, from the familiar (Hard Hearted Hannah, Toot Toot Tootsie) to the unjustly neglected (Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long). Is there another dance company anywhere that could bound from the grandeur of Promethean Fire into the rampant silliness of Dream Girls? And display both of them with such conviction that we see they’re on the same artistic plane? There certainly is no other company capable of honoring that delirious tradition from the early jazz era known as eccentric dancing, which shimmies and flails and preens and collapses all through this piece.

Highlights from the fabulous horseplay here include Kristi Egtvedt as a tipsy fan-dancer swigging from her own jugs (of booze, strapped to her chest), and Julie Tice puffed out with pillows and jiggling like a Venus of Willendorf gone vaudeville. In “I Love a Piano,” Annmaria Mazzini and Robert Kleinendorst take turns being the keyboard (“I know a fine way / To treat a Steinway”), and in “Shut the Door,” all the women prance and pounce like evil chimps, riding the men as if they’re so many mules. It’s the lost art of sheer bawdiness, and Taylor brings it back in glory.

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Paul Taylor Dance Company
Premiere of Promethean Fire, and other works at City Center. (Closed.)

Leaps of Faith