Paul Taylor’s greatest gift is shading — adding a stroke of darkest charcoal to a brilliant moment, a sweep of white to a dusky one. His choreography reaches bright extremes, yet its strongest points are its murkiest ones. In Aureole, a Taylor masterpiece, four dancers skip happily through a brisk, upbeat allegro. The music stops. As the quartet exits, a man — Taylor, originally — walks slowly, deliberately past them in the silence to take his place at center stage. A simple walk, and the temperature of the dance changes. A cloud has passed in front of the sun. (In his autobiography, Taylor says that of all the work’s challenges, it was that walk that “scare[d him] to death.”)
Aureole turns 50 this year, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company celebrated by moving its annual New York season from New York City Center to the considerably grander David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. The larger stage suits celestial Aureole, which seems not to have aged a day — thanks in part to the current cast, with the serenely assured Michael Trusnovec in Taylor’s role and flame-haired, untamed newcomer Heather McGinley among the women. The company also presented more than 20 other dances during its three-week run. There’s an almost unparalleled richness in the Taylor repertoire, which includes about as many duds as treasures. And the three New York premieres presented last month spanned the full breadth of the 81-year-old choreographer’s range.
On the lower end of that spectrum is House of Joy. It’s just a sketch of an idea, a brief piece of theater involving five “shady ladies” (one very pregnant, one the macho Jeffrey Smith in drag) and the clients who visit them (a randy sailor, a hobbled old man). It’s not quite funny. It’s not quite chilling. It’s not much of anything, really, before it’s over.
Gossamer Gallants is also thin, a manic, cartoonish romp in which fratty male insects pursue a sorority of lady bugs to Bedřich Smetana’s fittingly buzzy dances from The Bartered Bride. The dudes — and they’re about as dude-ish as guys wearing wings can be — show off their muscles for the girls, leer at them, make semi-rude buggy gestures toward them. The girls, initially tauntingly wiggly, eventually turn the tables on the men. By the end of the piece they’re the aggressors, dragging the now-cowering guys around by their feet in an unlikely caricature of Jerome Robbins’ The Cage. Taylor — who worked very briefly with Robbins on Broadway — understands comic timing, and Gallants‘ slapstick jokes are so big and brassy that there were trills of laughter from the children in my matinee audience. His dancers, too, are born comedians. It’s fun to see elegant Laura Halzack morph into a chest-pounding, hip-shaking queen bee. But ultimately Gallants just buzzes, buzzes, buzzes, with ingratiation its only goal.
Of the three new works, only The Uncommitted haunts. Set to some of Arvo Pärt’s most familiar pieces — Taylor probably knows they’re bad modern-dance clichés — it manages to transcend the music’s nebulous sense of grief and angst, which can be so deadly to choreography. Uncommitted‘s opening image is its most striking: Dancers enter from various corners of the stage, accelerate gradually as they move toward the center, then suddenly scatter, leaving a single soloist. Again and again this beautifully orchestrated tide sweeps in and out, picking up one dancer and dropping another. We feel the distress of that loner, of unwanted solitude, of being left behind. Later the dancers walk in a labyrinthine pattern around the stage, avoiding eye contact, scrupulously not looking for anything; yet somehow, by the subtle pauses they make at each turn, we understand that each is actually searching desperately. The dancers’ costumes are bloody reds and purples, but their movements are myriad shades of gray, ever vacillating, filtered through Taylor’s lights and shadows.