Thursday, March 3, 2011

Paul Taylor’s Phantasmagoric Wonderland

By Mary Sheeran

     For Paul Taylor, even those engaging in the most innocent of activities – cavorting in a seaside resort or dancing in a ballroom – have within them the seeds of evil or corruption.  They can come out dancing with Klan hoods (Oh! You Kid [well, it’s not me who is kidding]), commit sexual abuses (Dubious Memories), or acts of stupidity and cruelty (Phantasmagoria). Even compassion cannot save them/us. We are all sinners, even when we are beautiful, even when we are in love, even when we are simply dancing a fling. The only time (so far, it seems) that we are not deceitful humans, pretending to be glorious when we are not, is when we are running, tumbling, and blissfully heading into wondrous forgetfulness. Ah, but where do they end up? Is there redemption in this world?

      In Taylor’s Polaris, it appears that nothing matters. Dancers begin in a box and dance in and out of it, but does it matter? It doesn’t seem so. They leave and are replaced. The dance begins again. Change the music, change the lighting, change the people – but it’s still the same movement. One damn thing over and over as Edna St. Vincent Millay sweetly remarked. And yet, our eyes strain to find something different, even just a little bit. And yes, actually, it does seem that the dancing is shaped with a different feeling, this phrase is held just a bit longer, this arm extends more slowly. The whole sense of the work changes with the music. And there is something else. Even in a dance as impersonal and mechanically designed as this one, different bodies with different energies and responses to music and movement are different. Mine, too, just sitting in the audience.  Is it an illusion? Naïve? Inspiring? I haven’t a clue. Just a hope, that we, those nameless, replaceable dancers are passionate, compassionate, and feeling people who make a difference even when we all move with the same steps and in the same paths.

     Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom is a bent elegance. It bursts out with the energy you find in his Esplanade. Evening gowns swirling, men in tuxedos. But some wear strange, glimmering headgear that refracts the light, and in fact, I have to shield my eyes at one point. Men in tuxes shape themselves into machines or – what? Strange creatures, these. A strain of Corelli, a strain of something more primitive. Back and forth. Too easy, this bent elegance, but beneath the elegance lies the creature with horns. Well, for some of us.

     In Phantasmagoria, a fantastic collection of vignettes, Taylor cannot tell a story without calling out our physical and spiritual weaknesses. It opens with a mood as if children had died. A woman in medieval garb stretches, her head arched back, then writhes in lamentation, since she cannot wail. There are others who join her, and yet, through this grieving group fly the young and vigorous, uncaring, as they almost always are. Unseeing, yes. Grieving, flying, folks but then the ridiculous must also come in. I don’t know why. It just does with Taylor, who is like a nervous teenager. I also don’t know why there’s an East Indian Adam and Eve (Why? Why not?) playing silly, adolescent jokes with a serpent. A forbidding nun takes the serpent and plays with it herself. Oh, another stereotypical stupid nun character. Does Taylor intend this to be cheap and stupid commentary to lead us astray or to his point or is it that his humor is cheap and stupid --  and beyond any redemption?

     And as in a classically staged piece, here come the character dancers. Michelle Fleet (I love her name, and she so personifies it!) hops out to do a highland fling, not caring in the least about what’s going on around her. Four fellows, reaching back to the rowdy Renaissance, gallop out, engage in horseplay, and are suddenly brawling. (My friend Sandi Leibowitz, an early musician, leaned over and whispered, “It’s a brawl.” –That’s actually spelled “branle”, and is a type of Renaissance rustic dance). Quite clever of Taylor, yes.

     Next on the stage are the Isadorables, women in Grecian dress, one two three Grecian urns, the type who ended Mr. Peabody’s parade on the "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." And their dance is interrupted by a “Bowery bum.”

     And then (yes, there’s more) one person is affected by the St. Vitus dance. Well, actually, it’s called Syndenham chorea, a disease that is manifested by jerky, twitching movements. One woman reaches out in compassion to touch him, and she is also afflicted. Cruel, yes. Even compassion cannot save us. All right, that is true. Our bodies disintegrate and we lose our control of them. Soon enough, the whole stage is filled with dancers twitching and jerking.

     The Phantasmagoria of life is meaningless, isn’t it? As it is in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which Carroll also used as satirical comment, which may well be the case with Taylor. Carroll was entertaining, albeit nasty, and he had a sly humor. Perhaps there is a connection between the meaningless bizarre nature of Wonderland (which does seem to recur in our entertainment these days) and the constant interruption of our natural wonder and joy with corruption and decay. We watch, bewildered, and that’s part of it too.

      But somehow, beneath this, I do feel a strong artist pushing at us to wake up, to think about what we’re seeing, to put it together and not be lured by the too easily grasped. That’s the dancing of Paul Taylor: You can’t stop thinking about the many levels of meaning he is handing us in a few short minutes.

Polaris: Music specially composed by Donald York, Sets and costumes by Alec Katz, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, First performed in 1976.  Cloven Kingdom: Music by Arcangello Corelli, Henry Cowell, and Mallory Miller; Lighting by Jennifer Tipton; First performed in 1976.  Phantasmagoria: Music by anonymous Renaissance composers, Costumes by Santo Loquasto, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, New York City premiere.
Paul Taylor Dance Company. Artistic Director: Paul Taylor.  The company is performing at New York City Center through March 6. For information, visit
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 (

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