As did his mentor, Martha Graham, the choreographer Paul Taylor has had a very long career. Modern dance, once so very cutting-edge in his hands, moved out of that category about 20 years ago and since then has become more mainstream, workmanlike and audience-oriented. Lately, Taylor’s begun to move into the school of retreads. It’s not his fault. Unlike Merce Cunningham, who, in his 80’s, uses a computer to generate surprising movement, Taylor still, apparently, uses his own body and his own body’s ideas. There’s only so much one person can be expected to create. While the dances continue to come forth, and the bookings and tours and PBS presentations, the dances that Taylor presents have come to look as old-fashioned as Graham’s once did. If he were a novelist, people might simply stop buying his books, but in the world of dance, reputations have a very long half-life, and someone who has been around as long as Paul Taylor still attracts those who have survived the same number of years with him. At least, unlike Graham and Cunningham, he stays off the stage.
That is not to say that he doesn’t have the knack. Like Mark Morris, he is highly musical and puts programs together with lots of different kinds of pieces. His oeuvre is a mix-and-match batch of quasi-balletic works, nostalgia pieces, politically charged dances and even some with a charming sense of humor. His movement vocabulary is more recognizable than Morris’ however, which can be both good and bad. Those familiar phrases, quick leaps, elbowing arm gestures and earthbound traveling steps, mean every Taylor dance looks a lot like a Taylor dance, which you could forgive in a ballet choreographer (it’s "classical" after all) but in modern dance becomes annoying.
Public Broadcasting and their "Dance in America" series just came out with a new Taylor program. Acts of Ardor: Two Dances by Paul Taylor was recorded live in performance at the Edinburgh Festival in May, 2003. It was directed by Matthew Diamond, a former dancer who also directed the well-received documentary on Taylor and his company, Dancemaker. Diamond goes for the long shot during these two big group pieces, so as not to leave out any of the patterns, the stage design and big picture. What is missed is the occasional isolated movement, body part or facial expression. On a normal-sized TV, it’s like watching things from the second balcony in a very large theatre: an ant dance. One does admire the way Taylor uses space but wishes for a pair of binoculars.
The title, Acts of Ardor, is used only as a connecting theme. The pieces are "Black Tuesday" (2001) and "Promethian Fire" (2002). Both pieces take as their subject bad times, although they present their grimness in ways that include lightness, humor and beauty. "Black Tuesday," the first piece, is a companion piece to Taylor’s hit, "Company B," based on World War II themes. This one features songs and social dances from the Great Depression and thematically appropriate touches that suggest that many of the unemployed, desperate people of that time were listening to the radio and dancing. Dressed in grimy period clothes, with a twinkling Manhattan skyline behind, Taylor seems to point out that what was thought to be really bad back then, was a vacation compared to today. Great Depression? Try terrorism. The dancers are uniformly light on their feet, even the ultimate solo for Patrick Corbin to the famous "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" reads more blue than bitter, and the piece is filled with so much soft shoe, Charleston, barrel rolls and the like, that it becomes more quaint than cutting. "Let’s go slumming on Park Avenue. Let’s go smelling where they’re dwelling…"
"Promethian Fire" seemed obviously reflective of the events of 9/11 when Taylor first presented the work in 2002, but then, everything did and everything was. What outlasts the initial value of the memorable ending, a pile of bodies on a black stage, is the music, Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor, Prelude in E flat minor and Chorale Prelude. The bird’s-eye view of the choreography offered by this production highlights Taylor’s masterful manipulation of a large group of dancers, becoming to Bach’s notes, mood and sweeping grandeur. At times, the stage looks like a Busby Berkeley musical with circles of dancers flinging themselves to the ground sequentially, but other times are filled with surprising inventive touches. A central couple, Corbin again, with Lisa Viola, occupy the slow movement and have some lovely partnering sequences. Mostly, the pieces is a mass of humanity swirling to bellowing pipe organ and orchestra, with flinging arms, circles and star patterns, and a final, exhausted death.
January 30, 2004 – Michael Wade Simpson