Remember in the old days when you would arrive at a fine restaurant and the hostess would usher you past the dessert cart on your way to the table just to get you salivating? Keeping your hands down at your side was so difficult because the trigger finger was ready to swipe a path through the dense icing that beckoned from around the base of the chocolate cake.
Thursday night at the Paul Taylor Dance Company's Spring Gala, up the steps to the ring levels we trudged, past the long table of silver dessert compotes with their little goodies all identically arranged and awaiting transfer to the gala tables on the promenade level. Oh look, are there a few delicious little cakes missing from that compote at the end of the table by the stair railing?
By the end of the evening’s performance, no one really had room left for dessert anyway.
What a terrific, uplifting evening of dance during which we enjoyed 3+ masterworks by the master of American modern dance: Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom, Sunset, Piazzolla Caldera, and an excerpt from Airs. The excerpt, treated something like a piece d’occasion, was performed beautifully by Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild of New York City Ballet.
Every time Haglund sees Cloven Kingdom in which the men in black and white tuxedos gloriously prance around to snare drum cadences with their “hoof-hands” proudly held out in front of them, he’s reminded of those New Year’s Day Rose Parade telecasts from the 1950s and '60s when the Calizona equestrian drill team strutted down Colorado Boulevard with the Appaloosas high-stepping and side-stepping to the crowd’s applause. Their spotted rumps were always so curious looking.
Cloven Kingdom is Taylor’s witty, brilliant comparison of formal and primitive aspects of society – the civil versus the uncivil, the good and the evil animal in every one of us. The men in tuxedos sometimes precision-dance cooperatively and sometimes climb on one another’s backs like uncivilized animals tend to do. The women engage in more formal dances while wearing long dresses with mirrored headgear that bounces the reflection of the stage lights all over the audience in the darkened theater rings. It all serves to create a strange but attractive society that some might think could be just another neighborhood below 14th Street. On Thursday night the Taylor dancers were hysterical in their seriousness and exceptional in making it all look like an ordinary day in the lives of their creatures.
The New York Times loved Cloven Kingdom (1976), calling it “wickedly sophisticated.” The Times loved Piazzolla Caldera (1997), calling it “genius” and “a brilliant essay” on the tango. The Times loved Sunset (1983), calling it “beautiful” and a “masterpiece.” But those were better Times – times when the Times critics actually had practical dance knowledge and didn’t carry the burden of a whiney one-note agenda to stop men from dancing with women. Yes, those were better Times. But this little animal will not stoop to any uncivil discourse about anyone’s sketchy qualifications for evaluating dance in today’s Times - not at this time.
Sunset is the masterful manipulation of music and movement that we have enjoyed from Taylor’s work over six decades. Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and the heartfelt mourning in his Elegy for Strings grab the gut and won’t allow us to to feel the happiness that the actors on stage portray because we know their futures long before they live them. The soldiers who are on leave flirt and dance with the pretty young girls. There is such hope and expectation of happy lives ahead. But the joy in their steps can’t be felt because Elgar’s Elegy is the “distant roll of thunder at a picnic” that Auden described. At the end of the day, as the soldiers leave to return to war, a hat falls from a soldier’s head to the ground. The fallen hat is retrieved by one of the young girls who clutches it as hope for the future when the soldier returns and as a keepsake in the event he doesn’t. No matter what the war, this scene plays out over and over again.
Piazzolla Caldera erupts into smoldering, steamy hot, tango-inspired movement that takes your breath away. There’s some funny business as when two inebriated men dance a tango of compadróns in which they fight and wrestle with one another, but mostly the dance conjures up the flavor of the old style tango movement that was born in the brothels of Argentina as opposed to the slick and glamorous portrayal we often see today in dance competitions. The highlight of Thursday night's dance was the PdD for Michelle Fleet and Michael Trusnovec. So sizzling hot in terms of technique and sexual inferences that it became necessary to loosen the collar while watching it.
Paul Taylor choreographed the masterpiece Piazzolla Caldera when he was nearly 67 years old. He made Sunset when he was 53 and Cloven Kingdom when he was 46. His Emmy Award winning Speaking in Tongues and Brandenburgs, both unfortunately omitted from this season, were made when he was 58. He made the disturbing but compelling war-related piece, Banquet of Vultures, when he was 75 years old. Every year, Taylor has made two new works. Some years, particularly in the first decade or two, he may have made more during the year, but unlike today’s much younger choreographers, he did not race from place to place, from commission to commission, from idea to idea, trying to leverage his economic value at the expense of his artistry. He made two new works each year.
Taylor’s body of work is filled with important, craft-saturated dances that likely will endure until the end of dance. Now, thankfully, Taylor’s own idea of creating a repository and incubator for American modern dance will ensure that, as well as ensure the preservation and continued presentation of works by America’s modern dance legends such as Merce Cunningham. There will be no childish lawsuits over who owns the choreography created by Taylor when he is gone. There will not be a planned lingering death of his company. No, Paul Taylor is choreographing estate planning and future revenue streams for the benefit of the past, present, and future of American modern dance. If the choreography is as good as Cloven Kingdom, Sunset, and Piazzolla Caldera, we will be eternally grateful. Hopefully, this campaign will yield the newest permanent resident organization at Lincoln Center. Just tell us where we should send our checks.
The Gala evening was filled with so many outstanding performances. But Michelle Fleet and Michael Trusnovec in their PdD from Piazzolla Caldera take the cake and the H.H. Pump Bump Award, a stiletto of pure ecstasy from Christian Louboutin.