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Ensemble

Lyrical Athleticism

The Paul Taylor Dance Company
and the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra
celebrate Paul Taylor's eightieth birthday,
reviewed by REBECCA SCHMID

 

Paul Taylor is a man of many complexities.

While a love for classical music drives much of his work, his dances challenge established affinities to everything from Bach to ballet.

Satire and buoyancy permeate his work, yet his pieces explore the darkest caverns of the human condition.

Taylor even claims not to have his own technique despite the many innovations he has brought to the world of dance.

Paul Taylor. Photo © Paul Palmero
Paul Taylor. Photo © Paul Palmero

This humility and individual sense of artistic purpose have served him well. After half a century of legendary choreography, at an age when most artists have retired, Taylor continues to create dances of great power and relevance.

To celebrate his eightieth birthday, Syracuse University joined with several foundations to commission a new work for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The piece was premièred last night [6 November 2009] with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra at the Civic Center in downtown Syracuse, NY, USA.

In a dance of refined yet understated aesthetics, Brief Encounters tells a disjointed story of seduction, betrayal, reconciliation and friendship. Taylor effortlessly conveyed a vision of people who drift apart and come together.

Clad in black bikinis, his dancers crossed the stage with sleek movements ranging from divine sequences of grand-jetés to simple, natural gestures. The troupe's charisma was unstoppable.

Taylor's sense of humor did not go unnoticed, however, by dressing his dancers in bathing suits. He studied briefly at Syracuse University under a swim scholarship before beginning his dance career in New York City.

Set to Debussy's Children's Corner suite in its orchestration by André Caplet, Taylor's choreography benefitted from the dynamic range of musical imagery. Under the baton of guest conductor David Lamarche, the orchestra provided seamless accompaniment to the movement onstage.

A hint of alienation re-defined the music during certain passages of the dance. Jimbo's Lullaby featured a single male dancer whose weighty steps mirrored the elephant-like melody. This estrangement was overcome in the last movement, Golliwogg's Cake Walk, when the dancers walked serenely offstage, leaving one dancer slightly behind to turn up her foot in a careless yet somewhat unresolved gesture.

The program of the evening featured a recent work, Also Playing, a parody of ballet and other stage conventions set to excerpts from two little-known Donizetti operas, Dom Sébastien and L'assedio di Calais.

Julie Tice with Annmaria Mazzini, James Rae Walker and Eran Bugge in the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 'Also Playing'. Photo © Tom Caravaglia
Julie Tice with Annmaria Mazzini, James Rae Walker and Eran Bugge in the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 'Also Playing'. Photo © Tom Caravaglia

In a direct reference to the famous sequence from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker in the land of the sugar plum fairy, Taylor designed a modern vaudeville show featuring everything from a prima ballerina who flitted and collapsed like a wounded bird, to a middle-eastern trio that struggled with a misguided tambourine, to a dancing stage-sweeper. Robert Kleinendorst's presence was unrivaled as he shuffled around with a broom and amused the audience, but many of Taylor's jokes were over-the-top and grew wearing.

Robert Kleinendorst in the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 'Also Playing'. Photo © Tom Caravaglia
Robert Kleinendorst in the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 'Also Playing'. Photo © Tom Caravaglia

The piece culminated with a dancer who pranced gleefully around stage with an American flag, only to be joined by a line of slap-happy followers and a handful of confetti.

Annmaria Mazzini with Orion Duckstein, Jeffrey Smith and Michael Apuzzo in the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 'Also Playing'. Photo © Tom Caravaglia
Annmaria Mazzini with Orion Duckstein, Jeffrey Smith and Michael Apuzzo in the Paul Taylor Dance Company's 'Also Playing'. Photo © Tom Caravaglia

The orchestra played blandly as Donizetti's music was rendered into a 21st-century celebration of patriotism, albeit tongue-in-cheek.

An earlier work set to movements from three Bach concerti, Cascade, was more harmonious, echoing the music's symmetry and inner melancholy with grace and intensity. Although polish was not always the dancers' forte, the expressive movement and artful contours redeemed the performance. The opening quartet with Robert Kleinendorst, Joseph Samson, Michelle Fleet, and Laura Halzack was particularly elegant.

The musical backdrop included an unfortunate decision to feature a piano in Bach's concerti for keyboard and orchestra, which were originally conceived for harpsichord, strings, and continuo. Since the pianoforte did not exist in Bach's time, it is difficult to render his music convincingly on the modern keyboard. Fred Karpoff and Steven Heyman, who alternated as soloists at the piano, were not able to provide a singing melody above the orchestra, whose stiff playing in this case did not help matters.

Despite this disappointment, the free-flowing, lyrical athleticism of Taylor's choreography spoke directly to modern-day sentiments, all the while serving as a conduit for the emotional content of the music.

Copyright © 7 November 2009 Rebecca Schmid,
Syracuse, USA

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Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller