Paul Taylor Dance Company
Aureole, Big Bertha, Roses, Company B
Mercuric Tidings, Piazzolla Caldera, Esplanade
Paris, Theatre National de Chaillot
21, 22 June 2012
London audiences may feel starved of Paul Taylor, but we’ve seen his company here twice since it was last in Paris, twelve years ago. That means that many of the French audience will have been seeing his work for the first time and they’ve been given a generous retrospective: thirteen works, from Aureole, fifty years old this summer, to a couple of pieces made only last year. But though any re-encounter with the company is a joy for me, several factors made me wonder if the newcomers will be getting quite the overwhelming experience which made me fall in love at first sight more than 20 years ago.
First of all, I found the Théâtre de Chaillot a rather depressingly unsympathetic location: it’s a huge space, completely unadorned and atmosphere-free – a downer in itself and not helped by its being nothing like full. Both the dance and the dancers would look better in a more intimate theatre, and from closer up we might also be able to distinguish more sharply individual characters: I remember that the first time I saw the company I could recognise and name every dancer after only two evenings, whilst this time I didn’t get even half way there. Another advantage we’ve had in London is that the company has always been accompanied by live music: times are hard, I know, and this is presumably the only way they can afford to tour, but there’s no doubt that recorded music takes away some of the immediacy of the experience, particularly given the intense musicality of Taylor’s choreography.
The seven works I saw over two nights started with Aureole and ended with Esplanade, and even in these less than perfect circumstances it’s impossible to resist the enchantment of these two masterpieces. Aureole especially seems to me the essence of Paul Taylor, his Symphonic Variations as it were: there’s nothing there but the music and the dance, interdependent to the stage where you can’t tell which is the cause and which is the effect and only know that the combination speaks directly to the heart. My only, and eternal, regret is that I never saw Taylor himself in this piece – there’s a film of him teaching his solo to one of his most talented successors and it’s the clearest possible demonstration of the difference between a great dancer and one who’s ‘merely’ very good.
Possibly to shake us up a bit between Aureole and the equally elegiac Roses, the first programme had a late edition in the shape of the rarely seen Big Bertha, a 13 minute piece of grand guignol. It’s one of Taylor’s booby-traps, starting out as good clean American fun – Mr and Mrs Average and their daughter enjoying a nice day out at Luna Park, accompanied by cheerful fairground music – and descending into horror: an automaton, Big Bertha, takes control of the family, bringing out their repressed desires, and the innocent joking ends in horrific rape and death. Taylor’s dark works are really, really dark and this one – though very well done – joins Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson on my list of pieces I really wouldn’t mind if I never saw again.
Up till this the only Taylor work I’d ever thought of sitting out was actually the next on the programme, Roses – but for a completely opposite reason: the first and only time I saw it was also the only time I’ve seen a piece that I thought was perfect – just that – and I was afraid that a lesser performance might take away some of the wonder of that memory. But to deliberately avoid it seemed life-denying, and although it certainly was a much less intense experience it’s still a lovely piece. Written in memory of the great critic Edwin Denby, it’s sprinkled with references to his (perhaps surprising) love of gymnastics, which temper the sweetness of the successive pas de deux and the lushness of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll; and just exactly at the moment when you think it’s all over and you can’t bear it to end, on comes a new couple, dressed in white, for a final duet of even more beauty.
After that, what could close the programme but Company B? I last saw it in London, danced by American Ballet Theatre, and it’s interesting to see how much more at home it looks on Taylor’s own company, though of course it was originally made for the Houston Ballet. The dancers look as if they own it and they danced it more freely than ABT and with a confidence which let them slightly change the interpretation in places. I remember more exciting performances of one or two of the numbers from earlier casts, but the more serious ones were touchingly done.
The centrepiece of the second programme was Taylor’s tango-tinged Piazzolla Caldera, hugely popular with the audience, but unfortunately neither the music nor the style does much for me, despite some fine individual performances. The evening opened though, with a very pleasant surprise in the shape of the Schubert-based Mercuric Tidings – I’d seen it before, in London, but remembered almost nothing of it and was just astonished by the first movement, so fast, so full of invention. I pity any critic trying to take notes -look away, even for long enough to write ‘Wow!’ and you’ve missed two more things – new patterns, new ways of partnering, and every now and again a phrase so beautiful and so unexpected that it nearly stops your heart. And then to finish we had Esplanade, which goes from simple joy to darkness and grief and ends in total exhilaration.
The programme lists the dancers in the order in which they joined the company, and therefore starts with Michael Trusnovec, who showed in Aureole and Roses and even Piazzolla Caldera that he leads the company by talent as well as by seniority. Michelle Fleet shone brightly, especially in Esplanade, and I was also very taken by the presence and style of Parisa Khobdeh in ‘I can Dream ‘ in Company B and also in Piazzolla Caldera. Several others caught my eye in various roles and I look forward to seeing the company again soon and learning to know more of them.