Friday, March 11, 2011

Paul Taylor’s Cosmos: Orbs and Promethean Fire

Paul Taylor’s Cosmos: Orbs and Promethean Fire
By Mary Sheeran
The ancients spent considerable time contemplating the universe. You could do the same, happily, with Orbs.
The ancients would have understood Orbs, the chock-full-of-richness cosmos designed by Paul Taylor. Louis XIV would have understood it it, too, having, like Taylor (when the piece was new in 1960), danced the role of the sun because he was, well, the boss. Orbs is a rich piece, in four seasoned parts, one section being a sideways step into the humor of a wedding complete with a real live rubber chicken. It’s a sly, less toiled over humor in Orbs, though. The piece affords a theological blend of humor and divine, where the sun rules the planets and then descends to earth to play the part of the minister, without losing his touch for either of his aspects. The Tayloresque quirks are thankfully less nervous and fewer, and when he does visit humor upon us (as does the cosmos), he sustains it. Taylor lets his cosmos dance, and that could only be called good.
            The most beautiful section comes toward the end, where the four moons sleep at the feet of the planets. It is a breathtaking segment; it looks as if the light on the moons reflects on the planets as the music revolves around them – yet, all is still.  Gorgeous.
Throughout, the dancing is rich. The dancers’ leaps are full, and their landings are unbelievably soft. You don’t hear anything but Beethoven. Many of the moves originate with long, long lines, resembling the semi-circular orb across the sky (or the rope sliding down in the second half of the piece). Even when silence interrupts, the movement continues in rhythm, just as it would in the universe, silent bodies circling each other.
            One might quibble that in Orbs, only the sun (James Samson) has a distinctive character and comes alive, and toward the end of the piece he takes on a two-sided mask, as if he were Janus. One can see him as a fully defined Greek god, at times Olympian, at times very human. Then again, Taylor originated this role himself, and that may explain it. Otherwise, you don’t see Taylor’s gods as the ones who had any strong ideas, such as withholding the gift of fire from humans. Well they might have pondered that gift.
Taylor’s Promethean Fire is an emotional experience, even without the idea that it is his response to Sept. 11. Here, dancers – that is, we, are connected – one body, several members – in an almost theological insistence that strikes emotionally whether or not one is aware of the tragic subtext.  The music is Bach’s, as orchestrated by Stokowski. Taylor could have clipped it right off Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” and he may well have wanted us to image the bold red that rises from Stokowski’s orchestra in that cartoon. Taylor then gives us a joyous, tender pas de deux that salutes the glory of the human spirit and of human courage.
But it was the consistent imagery of birds in flight that caught my heart. Not because of imagery that may have signified the phoenix resurrecting. No, because I remembered that, for weeks after 9/11, no birds’ songs were heard.
But they came back.
Orbs: Music by Ludwig van Beethoven, sets and costumes by Alex Katz, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, first performed in 1960. Promethean Fire: Music by JS Bach, orchestrated by Leopold Stokowski, costumes by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, first performed in 2002.
Paul Taylor Dance Company. Artistic Director: Paul Taylor. Rehearsal Director: Bettie De Jong. Principal Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Set & Costume Designer: Santo Loquast. Executive Director: John Tomlinson.
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe (

No comments: