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Robert Abrams
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Argentine Tango
New York City Center
Paul Taylor Dance Company
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Paul Taylor Dance Company – Dante Variations, Sunset, Piazzolla Caldera

by Robert Abrams
March 3, 2007
New York City Center
130 West 56th Street
(Audience Entrance is on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(Entrance for Studios and Offices is on West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019

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Paul Taylor Dance Company
Paul Taylor Dance Company (office)
552 Broadway
New York, NY 10012
212 431 5562

Paul Taylor Dance Company
The Paul Taylor Dance Company is filled with talented dancers who consistently dance well. Paul Taylor is a choreographer who consistently creates extended works in varying styles that include something interesting to see throughout each work.

That is usually enough to ensure the greatness of a dance company and a choreographer, but I want more than that. I want dances that are tied together into a coherent whole and that draw me in from start to finish without possibility of distraction. One way to get at this is to ask, What is the Action (in the Aristotelian sense) of this dance? This does not necessarily have to be a narrative in the conventional sense, and I believe, can apply to abstract dances as well as story ballets.

I will start with Dante Variations. The program includes a quote from Dante's Inferno, so I assumed the dance would be at least partly a representation of that classic work of literature, which I studied in college. It is often true that one sees what one expects to see, so with that caveat, which is a less daunting caveat than "Abandon all hope, you who enter here", I saw visions of torment. The dance starts with a mounded row of dancers who writhe. The pace picks up. They fall to the ground. Their arm movements suggest flames. A woman bathed in blue light looks lost and exhausted and is eventually carried off stiff as a board by three men. A man dances with a length of toilet paper stuck to his foot. He struggles mightily, but can never reach it. I assumed this was a light hearted take on Sisyphus. A woman dances with her legs tied. There is a torment for three. The company reforms the mounded row of dancers and darkness falls.

Consistent with my summary analysis above, the work had multiple positive elements. For instance, the sections were sequenced with good contrast between group and solo passages. The dancers' holds were performed with no wobbles. The movement was often pretty without being conventional. The skills demonstrated, in addition to the holds, were impressive, such as assisted flips.

I wanted to know "Who are these people?" Dante's Inferno tells the story of the people the narrator views. This is supposed to be a variation, so I am not expecting Mr. Taylor to literally represent the stories of Italians in the year 1300. I do want to know, for instance, why the woman's legs are tied, what her sin was and how this punishment fits that sin. I have read that Paul Taylor likes to create dances that allow the audience to decide for themselves what they mean, which normally is fine because it gives dance critics an excuse to speculate endlessly in print, but if Mr. Taylor is trying to present Dante's Inferno, I would rather hear what he has to say. Dante himself used his poem to make moral points about the world in his day, and to skewer specific real people who he thought were deserving of skewering. I am sure Mr. Taylor could make such an important statement about the world today.

As readers of ExploreDance.com know, I am a big proponent of macro-structure in longer dances. Dante's Inferno is not only a series of vignettes depicting each level of Hell, but is also tied together by the story of the narrator who is on a journey guided by Virgil and Beatrice. As a set of variations, such a connecting plot line is not strictly necessary to this dance, but I think leaving it out is a missed opportunity. And there is a long tradition in the arts of stealing successful plot structures. In fact, since Mr. Taylor is in the process of organizing his estate to make sure that the chaos that ensued after Martha Graham's death does not happen to his works, Mr. Taylor should strongly consider inserting himself as the narrator into this work. I will leave the task of figuring out who is the dance equivalent of Virgil to him. Such an approach would give Mr. Taylor an opportunity to speak directly about dance and the world. It would take a great work and make it extraordinary, would be entertaining and educative, and would no doubt induce Mr. Taylor's many fans to buy tickets at a premium. And if Mr. Taylor thinks there is a special ring of Hell for dance critics who tell choreographers how to improve their dances, I am okay with that.

Sunset seemed like it was a variation on An American in Paris, except that there were six soldiers on leave courting four girls. For some reason I thought the soldiers were Italian. The dance had an easy, flowing exuberance that suggested Gene Kelly. Not every modern dance company can pull that off, and Paul Taylor's dancers did pull it off. The dance had flowing ballet-like, but natural, movements, which also fits with the Gene Kelly style. I got the whole spring courtship/going off to war theme and it was all well danced, but like the other works, I wanted to know more about what was going on and who these people were. Part of the time I felt they were in a bird sanctuary and it wasn't entirely clear why. The whole thing was mostly light and joyous, so it provided a good contrast to the seriousness of Dante Variations.

The final work of the night, Piazzolla Caldera, drew audible Oohs and Aahs from the audience when the lights went up. I thought the work had the strongest attack of the night. The movements were sharp but flowing. They danced a modern dance version of Argentine Tango al reves (which is traditional in some sense), and with a stiff armed promenade (which is not, and which is just wrong, unless one is carrying on Groucho Marx's parody of bad Tango technique). Other than that one stiff armed promenade, the dance is fairly true to Tango's style and milieu. The work is certainly inventive, which Tango tends to be as well. I particularly liked the section where one dancer performed ochos while stepping over the body of another dancer. The lifts and drops were well done. The scene where two guys engaged in a danced fight after they have been clearly dancing until dawn at a milonga is classic, complete with cartwheels where one man is clasped to the other and they roll across the stage as one.

Again, this was a work with related but largely unconnected episodes. It works as is. The audience was very enthusiastic. Still, I wouldn't object to seeing the same choreography tied together with a story. I am sure that Paul Taylor could reach a whole new audience if he also turned Piazzolla Caldera into a musical.

Dante Variations
Music by György Ligeti
Musica ricercata adapted for barrel organ
Choreography by Paul Taylor
Costumes by Santo Loquasto
Lighting by Jennifer Tipton
Dancers: Lisa Viola, Michael Trusnovec, Annmaria Mazzini, Amy Young, Robert Kleinendorst, Julie Tice, James Samson, Eran Bugge, Parisa Khobeh, Sean Mahony

Music by Edward Elgar
Serenade for Strings and Elegy for Strings
Choreography by Paul Taylor
Set and Costumes by Alex Katz
Lighting by Jennifer Tipton
Dancers: Lisa Viola, Richard Chen See, Michael Trusnovec, Annmaria Mazzini, Orion Duckstein, Robert Kleinendorst, James Samson, Michelle Fleet, Jeffrey Smith, Laura Halzack

Piazzolla Caldera
Music by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky
Choreography by Paul Taylor
Set and Costumes by Santo Loquasto
Lighting by Jennifer Tipton
Dancers: Lisa Viola, Richard Chen See, Michael Trusnovec, Annmaria Mazzini, Orion Duckstein, Amy Young, Robert Kleinendorst, James Samson, Michelle Fleet, Sean Mahoney, Eran Bugge, Francisco Graciano
Paul Taylor Dance Company - Dante Variations

Paul Taylor Dance Company - Dante Variations

Photo © & courtesy of Lois Greenfield

Paul Taylor Dance Company - Piazzolla Caldera

Paul Taylor Dance Company - Piazzolla Caldera

Photo © & courtesy of Paul B. Goode

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