Golden Oldies

by Leigh Witchel

Paul Taylor has been opening his house, and the old guests were the newest. In addition to commissioning, Taylor presented works of the modern dance pillars who held up the scene before him – Graham and Cunningham. Graham’s “Diversion of Angels” entered the Taylor repertory earlier in the season; in this program a duo of Taylor masterworks from decades back combined with a guest performance from Lyon Opera Ballet of Merce Cunningham’s “Summerspace.” They were three gems in a flattering setting.

The biggest musical departure in Taylor’s 1980 version of “Le Sacre du Printemps” (subtitled The Rehearsal) is that he uses Stravinsky’s two piano reduction instead of the savage orchestral scoring; the muted quality sounded closer to Debussy. Beyond that, this is one of the loopiest Rites ever: it throws together a detective, a mother and her baby, a gunman, his moll, and a modern dance company in an incomprehensible cartoon narrative. If you add four identical suitcases it could be “What’s Up, Doc.” Michael Trusnovec as the clean-cut detective in dark-rimmed glasses even looked a bit like Ryan O’Neal.

“Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal).” Photo © Paul B. Goode

“Sacre” is difficult to pull off in canonical versions – Taylor’s has even more red herrings. Playing the plot is a mistake. Yucking your way through the comedy is worse. The cast attacked this “Sacre” the Rite way: through the wind-up quality of the movement. Taylor’s version may look like a Max Fleischer cartoon, but the movement still has the two-dimensional plastique of Nijinsky’s original and Stravinsky’s clipped, tick-tock tempo. The men in the corps entered in turned-in jumps, their arms held lightly overhead as if they were the nymphs in “Afternoon of a Faun.” The joke wasn’t the movement, it was seeing a mobster doing it.

Taylor ends the plot with a pileup of deaths that are more and more ridiculous, but also propelled Laura Halzack into the Chosen One’s dance. No matter whose version of “Sacre,” this solo tends to look similar – there are only so many ways to dance yourself to death. Taylor adds density and depth to the background: as Halzack sank to her knees the dance studio reappeared with the dancers chopping through layers of mechanical movements at Keystone Kop speed. The cartoon and the real met in the solo. Nijinsky, Taylor, or Bausch: the only way to approach that solo is full tilt as if you’re going to die, and Halzack plowed into it.

“Summerspace” was encored in a lovely rendition by dancers from Lyon Opera Ballet, but one that might have profited sometimes from being a bit less pretty.

To Morton Feldman’s piano plonks and glissandos, Elsa Monguillot de Mirman held her arms in front of her as in character dance while spinning round in arabesque: part Giselle and part Raymonda. Raul Serrano Nuñez echoed her in arabesque, only jumping. Julia Carnicer did beautiful, arcing rond de jambes with her leg peaking in a high, turned-out extension before landing. Tyler Galster did jumps that held his arabesque steady even as he went into the floor. Later on, he and Nuñez circled the stage in jumps in second, before the full sextet all returned to perch in a wide fourth position. The cast was at their best moving into the air or to the top of a movement, their accents heading up. The birdlike head motions had the same outdoors quality as the pointillist backdrop, as if we were looking at a tiny bit of “La Grande Jatte” blown up infinitely under a microscope.  Yet what you really noticed was the cushiony quality of the dancers’ plié.

There’s certainly precedent for “Summerspace” being balletic – its subtitle (not in the program here, but in the repertory list at New York City Ballet) is “A Lyric Dance.” Made in 1958, it was programmed in ‘66 by NYCB and again in ‘99. In the ‘66 staging, the women were on pointe.

The Lyon dancers are ballet trained and several had classical careers, but it was hard to tell what, if any, was Cunningham’s commentary on ballet and what was massaging the modern movement into something with a ballet dancer’s priorities.

“Esplanade.” Photo © Paul B. Goode

The Taylor dancers returned to end on a familiar and beloved note, “Esplanade,” now celebrating 42 years without any dance steps. Eran Bugge performed the “runt” role with appealing reticence, as if she had made a joke, but didn’t want to spoil it by explaining. Christina Lynch Markham had trouble making her mark as the solitary figure in the slow movement. No matter how little dancing she did, we should have barely looked at anyone else. But Halzack blocked Markham’s path, shriveled and fell to the ground with more intensity; our eyes went there. Parisa Khobdeh had the running and falling solo in the finale down to a polished shtick, with a high jump, a pause and a twinkle in her eye before crashing to the floor.

Walking out of the theater, you could have quibbled if you wished with performance quality (and that’s half the fun, isn’t it?) but there was no arguing the quality of the repertory. With Taylor, if you want to strike gold, go old.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal),” “Summerspace,” “Esplanade” – Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
February 21, 2017

Cover: Julia Carnicer and Elsa Monguillot de Mirman in “Summerspace.” Photo © Paul B. Goode

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