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Consonance and Dissonance


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at the Civic Opera House, February 17-21

Paul Taylor has a gift for consonance, but there's an imp that drives him to dissonance--and thank God for both of them, especially when they come together.

They don't in the 1985 Roses, one of five works on two programs his company performed at the Civic Opera House. Six couples go through the soft arcs of Taylor's choreography as if describing with their caressing motions the petals of roses in subtle convolutions around a center. Occasional naturalistic gestures repeat the romantic theme: each couple places palms together, or the woman reclines against the man, between his legs, in an image of accord and mutual comfort. The dancers' upper bodies revolve in stately, balletic ports de bras over the runs they take in tiny steps, as if they were skaters or waltzers. Only occasionally does a flexed foot or bent knee on a woman tossed high reflect the minor key, the tragic note, sometimes found in the music: Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" and Heinrich Baermann's Adagio for Clarinet and Strings.

In the 1987 Syzygy (which immediately followed Roses), Taylor smashes up the movement. Every line that can be broken is: the dancers bend at the neck, the waist, the knee, the wrist, so we see tossed heads, flipped hands, jutting hips. And it's all done so quickly the dancers are like marionettes on fast forward. Just as he breaks up the dance spatially, Taylor breaks it up temporally: a dancer in the midst of a Saint Vitus's jig comes to a complete halt or begins to move in slow motion. Donald York's commissioned score has the eerie, spun-glass sound we've come to expect in music for movies about outer space, and one dancer sometimes moves around another as if orbiting her; but the references to astronomy seem a mere footnote to the dancing itself, which takes on an avid sexuality in a series of duets near the end.

Last Look (a work from 1985 shown on the second program) is Syzygy's cousin, the one who went to the penitentiary and never came back: its broken lines, creepy sexuality, and dissonant commissioned score (again by York) evoke a dark, bitter world. We first see several dancers lying in a heap, costumed in shiny, lurid, moldy green and purple. They crawl out of the pile one by one, and we know beyond any doubt that we're going to see the dark night of the soul that produced this horrible morning after. Sure enough, Last Look establishes--with the help of several fun-house mirrors scattered about the stage--that we are completely solipsistic, that the existence of other people is an illusion created when we glimpse ourselves in mirrors, that sex is exploitive and bestial. The broken lines of the dancers' bodies, the way they often hug the floor, recall reptiles and insects; their spastic, self-oriented motions look autistic. Clearly Last Look isn't meant to be a pretty dance, but it isn't genuinely disturbing either. Taylor's picture is too unrelieved and predictable to be convincing.

York's score doesn't help: though in Syzygy and Last Look he produces a workmanlike accompaniment for Taylor's ideas, his music isn't moving or interesting and it doesn't go anywhere. But when Taylor's working to good or great music, like the Bach violin concerti he uses in the 1975 Esplanade (which preceded Last Look on the second program), the results are inspired.

Esplanade creates a breathtaking vision of harmony, and without resorting to the gestural cliches of Roses--in fact, the narrative hints at trouble are partly what make the sense of harmony possible. And the dance is so muscular, so free of choreographic pretension, so scrubbed and fresh that no trace of sentimentality remains. Early on the movement could have come from a beginning modern-dance class--anyone could do these walking and running patterns. And in this way Taylor uncovers at its source the joy possible in movement: our delight in shifting our weight, changing direction, moving under our own volition to shifts in music. All of us appreciate our own mass and the mass of others, yet it's not something we usually consider consciously. Taylor makes us consider it, realizing all the erotic and dramatic potential of this everyday fact of life. As Esplanade goes on, as the dancers throw their weight about the stage with increasing violence and rapidity, Taylor creates a rock-bottom sense of the will that propels us, the will to control our own motions yet give something up to the gods too.

The 1991 Company B (shown on both programs), despite Taylor's jaunty, silky suite of dances and the cheery retro sounds of the Andrews Sisters, is not harmonious, generous, or lighthearted. In fact the dancing and music are thin, a kind of veneer over an abyss--and an abyss that has nothing to do with Taylor's obvious, equally thin references to war and death. What's scary about this dance is the way it lays bare the exploitive, fascistic nature of traditional sexual roles and equates them with American imperialism. The lyrics of the Andrews Sisters' nine songs insistently remind us of the closed-mindedness of the 40s, the insensitivity to women, gays, and people of color. Though some may think these lyrics "innocent," from the perspective of the 90s it's impossible to see the attitudes they assert as anything but destructive.

Women come off, in the lyrics and the choreography, as foolish man chasers. In "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!" a gaggle of women swirl around Patrick Corbin, ogling him with glazed, coy looks. In "Joseph! Joseph!" three women pursue three men, crouching and attacking like predators, while the Andrews Sisters brightly describe women's desperation to marry. In the more serious duet "There Will Never Be Another You" David Grenke steps out of the prostrate Francie Huber's encircling arms as coldly as a sleepwalker. The hottest dancing comes in solos for men: "Tico-Tico" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." And in "I Can Dream, Can't I?" we see a woman longing for a man who apparently longs for another man. This is the vision of a gay male in a world that doesn't acknowledge homosexuality, and certainly not in the armed forces: lone men are radiantly attractive, and women a crowd of nuisances.

Only one dance reverses these roles: "Rum and Coca-Cola," in which Mary Cochran impersonates a "native girl" (as the lyrics go) teasing a bevy of soldiers. But the reality, whatever sexual control the song may seem to give her, would have been prostitution--not a position of power for women. Add to that ugly fact the racial stereotypes of "Rum and Coca-Cola," and you have a sordid picture indeed. It didn't surprise me at all that two of Taylor's dancers of color, Hernando Cortez and Lisa Viola, briefly dropped to the floor in the work's final section, a reprise of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon": though these drops recalled the falls of soldiers throughout, they also made me think of World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans.

But Taylor doesn't stress the dark side of life 50 years ago. Instead he follows the sliding motions of the Andrews Sisters' singing, filling the dance with undercurves and vertiginous moments when the bottom drops out, seemingly buying into the lyrics' "innocence" with his own fluid takes on popular dances of the period. And the dancers themselves look wonderful, graceful and jazzed-up and committed. No, the dissonance in Company B comes not from the choreography or the dancing but from a double cultural vision: we entertain both the official 40s view of the 40s--that we're all happy white heterosexuals with a benign interest in other cultures--and our own, later view. That double vision makes for a conceptually disturbing piece, but the disturbance doesn't spill over into the dancing, which goes down as smooth and soothing as a milk shake.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dee Conway.

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