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Paul Taylor’s 1982 “Mercuric Tidings” Trumps His 2014 Premiere

On the evening of March 20th 2014, as part of the Diamond Anniversary celebration of the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Koch Theater, the troupe offered a triple bill that included a recent world premiere and an enduring favorite from 1982. The first two, choreographed in 2012 and 2013 respectively, earned only tepid applause from everyone in the audience including me. The closing piece, on the other hand, rightfully received a nearly thunderous ovation and I was clapping as enthusiastically as the rest of the dancegoers. I only hope that this disparity between the work that was choreographed over three decades ago and those more newly created is not an indication that Taylor, at 83, is no longer turning out the top quality dances that earned him a place in the pantheon of great American modern dance pioneers.

The first piece was the New York premiere of “To Make Crops Grow”. A program note says tersely that the story line involves villagers performing “holdovers of an ancient ritual”. This appears to be a modernized version of the Rite of Spring with its sacrificial ending. However, Taylor did not set his rendition to Stravinsky. Instead, he used sections from Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite”. I found this choice to be unfortunate in that the music is instantly recognizable and calls to mind visions of the canyon. Also, for me the dance dragged on too long while one character after another pulled a slip of paper from the vessel held by the “Ritual Conductor” and then looked relieved not to have drawn the unlucky one. Pretty quickly, I knew what the climax and denouement would be. Somebody would draw the dreaded paper and become the sacrifice. That’s exactly what happened, with a great deal of thrashing about and blowing bits of discarded paper. I found myself yearning for a signature Taylor work with plenty of dancing and no need to figure out what the content was supposed to mean.

I had to wait for the third piece to experience that. The second offering, which had its world premiere at the Koch on March 14th 2014, was another exercise in storytelling without much in the way of challenging or engaging movement. Entitled “Marathon Cadenzas”, the work opened with a large sign from a real 1920s dance marathon and went on to present various solos and duets as the dancers were summoned to center stage by the cigarette-smoking emcee. At one point, two men dressed as sailors did a very ordinary hornpipe with cartwheels and pigeon wings. Later, a male dancer tossed off an extremely simple soft shoe that any beginning tapper could have done nicely.

Finally the emcee shot the starting gun and the dancers began circling the stage, growing ever more weary. Predictably, they all eventually dropped except for the winning couple. The victorious woman unaccountably grabbed the cigarette from the emcee and flounced away as he clicked off the seriously annoying disco ball that had cast distracting flickers of light off and on throughout the performance.

Maybe this piece was a metaphor for the inevitable decline that comes with aging or maybe I’m just stretching to find some significance in the work. However, Mr. Taylor notably announced on May 13th that he is financing the preservation of his repertoire with the sale of four works by his frequent collaborator, Robert Rauschenberg. Mr. Taylor said to New York Times reporter Michael Cooper, “I prefer to think I’m going to live forever, but of course that’s not possible. So at some point, they’re going to not let me make dances anymore. So I have to think ahead.”

As poignant as that statement is, perhaps Mr. Taylor knows that the current works are no match for his iconic pieces from the past such as the evening’s thoroughly enjoyable closer, “Mercuric Tidings” to the music of Shubert. This is a pure dance piece with no wearisome attempt at a dramatic arc. The performers, clad in unitards, were at last charged with executing steps from the Taylor movement canon such as repeated little side cabrioles and slides to the floor in a semi-split. The choreographic patterns emerged and changed in kaleidoscope fashion and the dancers clearly enjoyed having the chance at last to strut their stuff.

The company’s three-week run continues until March 28th. At the very least, try to get to the Koch on May 27th when the Taylor masterpiece “Esplanade” is on the program. Actually, though, there’s enough variety on all the programs to ensure that any time you decide to go will give you the opportunity to see some of the best work that Mr. Taylor has given us during his remarkable 60-year choreographic career.

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