Glorious reign. Every spring through a fortunate conjunction of stars the Paul Taylor Dance Company overlaps with the annual visit of the Vienna Philharmonic to New York. Carnegie Hall is a far more lustrous venue than dusty, musty City Center. Its Moorish plaster ceiling recalls an earlier life as the Mecca Temple—out in the lobby you can view red Shriners fezzes with the word "fez" embroidered in sequins. But I venture that a great dance company is rarer than a great orchestra, and the number of choreographers of genius is a small fraction of great conductors. The vocabulary of music is anchored to scales and harmony, but the raw stuff of choreography is inchoate and invisible. We all move our bodies, yet there is no vocabulary (in modern dance, that is) to fall back on or even begin with.
Paul Taylor, now 78, is unique in my experience in that he lets no human gesture go untouched. From the sneeze to the pirouette, the hip grind of burlesque to the arabesque, nothing escapes his creative eye. I attended two programs the weekend of Feb. 28, and the first dance began with a cave man dragging his woman across the floor (to the beat of "Alley Oop," a ridiculous novelty song from the Fifties) and proceeded in the second dance to a transvestite hootchy-koo by a man in black bra, panties, and five o'clock shadow. Taylor has said that he works with no preconceptions and no formulated method. He's the living embodiment of the power of now. He risks walking into the rehearsal hall under the burden of making a new dance with absolutely nothing in mind beforehand.
Which may be true, I suppose, but Taylor certainly has the music in mind. Like Balanchine and Mark Morris, he earns perennial compliments for his musicality, and like those other two geniuses, his choreography opens your ears to music you thought you knew very well. Taylor is omnivorous in his musical appetites, swinging blithely from the demotic to the demonic. The six dances I saw ranged musically from Charles Ives to popular Mexican street tunes, comedy songs from the Depression, anarchic atonal events by Iannis Xenakis, and the courtly exuberance of William Boyce, a Baroque English footnote to Bach and Handel. In every case, Taylor devised a matching physical vocabulary. No two dances were alike in mood, gesture, feeling, or drama, and yet all were packed to surfeit with mood, gesture, feeling, and drama.
Why, then, isn't Taylor taken as seriously as Balanchine? After more than fifty years, his company still wanders like gypsies, and only last fall they barely escaped ruinous eviction from their old rehearsal space (a new and better space was found at the last minute). His season is noted in the Times but not extolled or celebrated in detail.
The two programs I attended tell the tale, at least in part. Funny Papers (1994) is an act of unembarrassed hijinks. If you pointed a video camera at a five-year-old and said, "Act funny," you'd film disorganized flailing of arms and legs and chaotic clowning. Taylor starts with that, and depending on whether the comic ditty is "Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," a geriatric rendering of "I Am Woman" (which verged on the cruel, actually), or the brainless "Alley Oop," the dancers clowned recklessly, childishly, and yet with tremendous physical skill and discipline. That's the demotic element coming out in Taylor, and snobs need not apply.
The second dance on the program was actually the first half of two linked dances, both based on dream imagery that fused Freud, surrealism, Catholic icons, and Mayan demiurges. Titled De Sueños ("Of Dreams" 2007) and De Sueños Que Se Reptiten ("Of Recurring Dreams" 2007), together they constituted an hour-long story ballet, concerning a flower girl in Mexico who meekly watches society from the outside then turns it into disturbing dream images on the inside. Taylor likes to tell stories, or at the very least to establish a scenic backdrop so that a particular dance speaks to real life. Yet he's not known for evening-length ballets, unlike Morris and Balanchine. Partly the reason must be the extreme physical demands placed upon his dancers. No choreographer (or Olympic coach) is harder on the human body, and even the girls have developed biceps from lifting the men, not to mention the rolling, tumbling, lifting, and leaping that Taylor employs almost without end and often at alarmingly high speed.
I think his critics find all this physical exuberance too easy, and yet at the same time Taylor's dips into Freud and the unconscious are sniffed at, too, for being passé. It's true that compared to Mark Morris, Taylor won't dare to expose himself as personally when confronted with the most profound music -- there's a lot of skipping, leap-frogging and other remnants of the playground in even his most serious dances. As if to counter the implication that he is too shallow to be abstract (i.e., "really" modern), Taylor mounted a program on March 1 that was entirely free of story and concrete settings. The first dance, Danbury Mix (1988), was set to Charles Ives at both his most colloquial and hazily atmospheric, but except for a mention in the program booklet that the composer came from Danbury, Connecticut, Danbury Mix takes no advantage of New England or Ives's professed Transcendentalism. A woman in a long silvery costume wore a tiara vaguely reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. Otherwise we were watching movements in and around a community of bodies, variously combining, impinging, embracing, passing unnoticed, moving in isolation, and piling up. The flowing design is indescribable in print, but the effect was miraculously Ivesian.
Taylor stripped abstraction down further in Private Domain (1969), by reducing the dancers to a handful of couples and trios, each performing in a blocked-off area of the stage, right at the apron, separated by long black fabric dividers. Xenakis's score has no melodies, phrases, or paragraphs -- my ear couldn't discern if it was even serial or just quirkily atonal -- a disconcerting melee which Taylor comes to terms with by affording his dancers jerky, impersonal poses that have few transitions in between. The physical perfection of the dancers' bodies didn't invite voyeurism so much as distanced observation. One was reminded of the sex lives of mannequins, an effect heightened by putting them in skimpy bathing suits. As an exercise in eroticism minus any turn-on, Intimate Domain made you feel that a loveless embrace can be the most soul-deadening form of aloneness.
As much as I admire Taylor, I concede that his departures into spare abstraction aren't as engrossing as his realistic/dramatic/comic material. He has gotten his audiences addicted to emotional realism, and it's hard to be weaned away. I felt a distinct tendency to grumble when the crowd realized that the third part of the program would be yet another abstract ballet, Arden Court (1981), set to the symphonies of William Boyce. The afternoon was getting a bit airless. But old-timers knew not to worry, because like his signature Baroque dance, Esplanade, set to Bach, this was going to be sunny abstraction based on flashy running, jumping, and some gasping tumbles and lifts. In this same perpetual motion mode Taylor comes closest to Mark Morris, but between them, he finds more to smile about. The movements were fruther softened in that, unlike the almost random combinations of Xenakis, Boyce's familiar tricks of fugue, canon, and rondo gave Taylor a chance to mirror them with dancers imitating, following, and mirroring each other. Compared to the impossibility of turning serialism into comfortable orderliness, Arden Court was as easy as humming "Three Blind Mice."
Which, I suppose, is Taylor's deadliest sin. He's almost never inaccessible, and in an era when opacity signals that you have bona fides as an artist, his transparency galls some. Not me, or his perennially amazed audiences. I'm not suggesting that Paul Taylor is in imminent danger of being neglected. But he is persisting beyond his time, a time inaugurated by Martha Graham, Agnes De Mille, and Aaron Copland, in which coterie art and populist art could drink from the same well. Because that ideal flourished in the Thirties and Forties, one realizes that it was sutured together by deprivation and war. The ethos of One Art depended on an underlying social ethos of One America, which of course has always been more myth than reality. However, in a recurrence of want and war, our time makes Paul Taylor seem far more current than nostalgic. Walking out of tatty old City Center with the smell of an oncoming blizzard in the air, I had a passing thought that it would be good if somebody told Barack Obama about this most optimistically American artist and urged him to attend. Here is one stimulus that cannot fail.