Saturday, November 6, 2010

Paul Taylor Dance Company

One of the best things about fall in Ann Arbor is that, in one weekend, you can spend $200 to watch your home team continue its three-year streak on the rough end of an intrastate football rivalry.

Or you can spend $10 to see the work of one of America's most celebrated choreographers.

(I guess you can do both, but that would take the wind right out of my smug, pretentious sails.)

Trained by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine, Paul Taylor is, indeed, a choreographer giant, a pioneer of postmodern dance in the 20th century.

The night we saw his company, Ben was suffering one of his rock-climbing-related ankle sprains, and the slow, deliberate progression of his crutches lent our descent to the first row of the Power Center an aura of even greater ceremony.

The first piece, ¨Speaking in Tongues,¨ was hard to watch. The story of an oppressively Christian small town is as much a cliche now as in 1988, when it was first performed. There is a corrupt minister, forbidding sex for his congregation but partaking of the town prostitute; a budding but ultimately quashed love between a young woman and a community outcast; a woman who survives a rape and seeks the counsel of the minister.

However familiar the territory, this piece is powerful because, despite its name, we are not told about it but rather so brilliantly shown. For instance, the young woman who has fallen in love is reprimanded when four other women take the stage with her, their arms fretfully pushing the air in front of them up and down, the kind of motion you would make just once if you were trying to get a classroom to calm down. But they do it incessantly, nervously, in lockstep with their rigid gaits, and I could almost hear them wishing that the world would be ¨just so, just so, just so,¨ over and over, in time with the music. We know the young woman will reject her lover when she, over and over, in time with the music, begins to pulse her arms with them.

What the first piece delivers in emotional intensity, the second answers in levity. The music is Bach and the costumes are warm shades of orange, red, pink, evoking, however unintentionally, the fall colors outside. ¨Esplanade,¨ first performed in 1975, is one of Taylor's most famous works, and I could feel the joy of the dancers wash over me. Maybe it was a few beads of their sweat. Either way, it was world away from the severity of the ¨Speaking in Tongues,¨ and the perfect way to end the performance.

Or so I thought, until the eighty-year-old Paul Taylor took the stage, as tall and slender as when I saw him in that PBS biography. He bowed gracefully, and even Ben tried to stand up on his crutches to applaud.

What football?

Photo courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company.

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