The Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to City Center this month with guest performances by the Limon Dance Company and Shen Wei. I’m always thrilled to attend a Taylor event and witness the work of one of the most prolific dance artists in America. I attended the first night of the Company’s engagement which found an enigmatic program order danced with variable effectiveness.

Arden Court‘s beautiful backdrop of Gene Moore’s exquisitely painted pink rose suggests a romanticism that takes a while to emerge in the dancing. The men become airborne in this piece quite a bit with varying degrees of facility. Overall, the look of the men has recently favored a muscled bulk over sculpted line, resulting in a quality of movement that often makes some of the Taylor men appear un-coordinated and clunky. This burdened quality happens when the men are taking off into jumps and landing on the floor. At times, the choreography appears to be too fast for some of them to handle, which is problematic to me. When the dancing bodies are at odds with the choreography my mind starts to wonder why, and I diverge from the piece. The exception to this trend in the company is Michael Trusnovec, who looks sculpted and beefy, but lithe enough to jump, land, turn and dance with elegance, artistry, and ease. The women fare better in their handling of the choreography. Their daring shifts of weight, quick direction changes, and fast turning demonstrate the high degree of technique required in the Taylor repertoire. Arden Court is a pleasant piece that grows into playfulness and finally a sense of euphoria. I do agree with Siobahn Burke‘s feelings of initially resisting the Taylor pieces and then easing into them as one views them, ultimately surrendering to the charm and musicality Mr. Taylor is famous for.

Big Bertha suffered a double-whammy of uneven casting and unfortunate placement on the program. It felt too early to insert such dark and twisted work so early in the evening, directly following the pastoral ease of Arden Court. I had seen this piece with a slightly different cast a few years ago and found it to be a bit clearer, riskier, and more incisive. Big Bertha presents a voluptuous carnival jukebox figure that is visited by a father, mother, and daughter. They insert a coin and as the jukebox is activated, the family unit is torn apart by rape and incest. This piece actually interests me on many levels. The audience audibly reacted with shock to some of the grotesque images Taylor presents in Big Bertha the evening I saw it, which was curious to me because television, news outlets, and the internet usually display similar (or much worse) violence and atrocities without much ado.

At the top of Big Bertha, the jukebox figure, who is dressed in a type of majorette outfit complete with cape and red knee high boots, pulls a baton out of her throat. She is a giant doll-like imposing machine with impossibly rounded thighs, appearing larger than life. Apparently this role has been played by a man as well as a woman in different variations in casting over the years in the Taylor Company (which is very interesting as well). At any rate, this figure, “Big Bertha” occupies an interesting theoretical space because her sharp and mechanical movements (she moves like a wind-up doll or a carnival machine) are at odds with the sensual and luxurious curves of her body proportion and costume. Removing the baton from her throat suggests obvious phallic references, as well as the freedom to speak and be heard. She then uses the baton to direct and control the family, wielding it as an object of power and authority.

Big Bertha dances and the mother, father, and daughter dance period steps together. They show off for each other and playfully invite each other to dance. As Big Bertha dies down the father gives her another coin (which she eats–her robust body survives on money) and she is activated again. The more she dances, the further she sends the family into the macabre. The father makes sexual advances toward his daughter and takes her behind the Big Bertha machine. The wife is left alone on stage and Big Bertha reduces her to a sexual object as well; she ends up stripping her clothes off, performing a sad type of desperate strip tease, humiliated while standing on a chair. The father returns bloodied, with a dead daughter over his shoulder. The American family unit is shredded up and literally left lying dead on the floor.

I highly suggest having a look at Nancy Dalva’s fantastic theories on Big Bertha. Her thoughts illuminate so many possibilities in this piece. She writes about a previous performance of the piece that I saw (with Michael Trusnovec in the father role) and remember as more haunting, more layered, and more dangerous. This piece could be called analogous with Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and other works that take aim at 50’s Americana and social conventions. In similar fashion, it begins semi-comically but then turns on a dime toward the fearful, tragic, and ugly. This recent performance lacks an articulation of the point of no return where jokes become insults or gestures become threats. However, Big Bertha continues to make us think.

Troilus and Cressida (reduced) was another confusing piece to have following this piece in the program this evening. I’m not entirely sure why the Taylor Company continues to perform this work when there are over a hundred other pieces in the repertoire that would interest me more. Personally I would be interested in seeing more obscure Taylor works than Troilus and Cressida (reduced), which has been performed in New York fairly recently. This frothy, whimsical, and cartoonish depiction of the lovers Troilus and Cressida depends heavily on sight gags like pratfalls and pants falling down. The familiar Ponchielli music, “Dance of the Hours”, suggests comedy that never quite materializes in the dance the way that one hopes it would.

Szygy takes flight with a marvelous score by Donald York. I recall seeing this piece performed to a synth-heavy recording (which I also like) but the live orchestration bristles, pops, and slides with so much texture that the dance is thrust upward into a new dimension. Taking celestial designs of the sky for inspiration, this piece is in constant motion, with a welcomed relaxed and slouchy sense of dancing. Bodies are loose, tossed, and thrown about the stage as they seem to bounce like ping pong balls toward, between, and into one another. This is the kind of excitement, the type of experience that makes seeing live dance so transcendent. Heather McGinley is particularly lucid as she negotiates the non-stop movement with moments of still balances in which she reaches upward toward the stars.


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