Paul Taylor Dance Company – Spring Rounds, Esplanade, Dust, From Sea to Shining Sea

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Poulenc: Oeuvres Orchestrales (includes Concerto Champ�tre)

The year after Paul Taylor Dance Company’s 50th Anniversary tour finds things predictably subdued. A 2006 season in San Francisco coming off the company’s annual New York season, at City Center, showed a programs of strongly danced old and recent dances but nothing particularly new to say.

As living museums go, this one offers modern dance with a capital M. Anyone who has ever said, "what is modern dance, anyway?" can go to a Paul Taylor concert to get some historical context. It’s this semi-non-balletic thing where the dancers are barefoot and things are loosey-goosier, and the choreographer doesn’t seem particularly interested, in some cases, in making things pretty.

Then again, half the pieces on display at Yerba Buena March 28-April 2, were tarted-up barefoot ballets. In fact, "Spring Rounds" was commissioned by San Francisco Ballet and performed at that company’s Paris field trip last summer and then again during their hometown season this March. It was a perfect opportunity to compare and contrast the two different groups dancing the same dance only a few weeks apart, on different stages in the same city.

The dance itself, a courtly little communal affair to Richard Strauss’ "Divertimento, Op. 86 (after Couperin)," was formal enough to rest on form in lieu of any particular choreographic statement–all circles and interactions based basically on an idea of way-old-fashioned social dance. San Francisco Ballet turned the thing into a stilted affair; the dancers walking around were like village people in any story ballet you could think of. When they danced, they predictably made things look all stretched and pretty.

Taylor’s company, on the other hand, may have studied Method Acting. They came across like real people, with a grounded, earthy quality that perhaps better suited the origins of the idea. Taylor’s company has beefy men with feet that don’t quite point, perky females with sturdy technique, and no one that looks starved or hyper-flexible (although several of the women dance with a kind of balletic placement the others don’t’ even attempt). (San Francisco Ballet is an international group of technophiles. Junior stars. Dancers not interested in coming across as grounded, or real.)

"Esplanade," the 1975 classic to Bach standards, would be hilarious on a ballet company, but it’s doubtful any group would pay to learn it. Walking around would be hard enough for any ballet people to learn, without duck feet, but the running, jumping, and, especially, the sliding into home plate, over and over again, would probably be forbidden by contract. Fortunately, the Taylor dancers do all this with relish. They fly around like snowboarders, throwing themselves onto the ground with seemingly great abandon. Dance, after all, is a young person’s sport.

"Dust" (1977) and "From Sea to Shining Sea" (1965) each demonstrate Taylor at the opposite end of the ballet-modern spectrum. These are dances without any dancey moments whatsoever. What they do offer is satire, characterizations, humor, political sensibility, and a loose sense of narrative. There is a clear Taylor POV, a sense of humor and braininess that comes across. And the performers, all of them, are adept at acting, character dancing, and humor. These are some of the finest contributions Taylor has made to the dance field, and the company presently on tour aces them. Still, they (the dances, not the dancers) sometimes look their age. Iraq may have replaced Viet Nam in the social fabric, but the performing arts have also been saturated with video, text, hip hop and circus. Taylor’s work from the 60’s and 70’s definitely looks of its time.

April 3, 2006Michael Wade Simpson

paultaylor06esplanade.jpg (47983 bytes)

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