Historic evenings of dance exist in the imagination—Nijinsky’s Faun, Ulanova’s Swan, the première of Le Sacre…were they really as extraordinary, as breathtaking, as scandalous as legend would have us believe? I attended one such occasion on the evening of May 14, 1959, when Martha Graham and George Balanchine “collaborated” for the first and only time. The work was Episodes, set to all the music Anton Webern ever wrote, and “collaborated” is a strong word for what actually went on. Webern’s scores were divided in half, like two parcels, and Graham tied up the first, and Balanchine the second. Beyond a mutual composer, if there was any connection between the first and second halves of the program it escaped me. But something odd and important happened that evening: Graham and Balanchine exchanged positions, almost as if by deliberation. It became clear that the ballet had taken over the avant-garde, and that modern dance was presenting its audience with a “story ballet” in the old-fashioned sense, complete with magic scenic effects (a throne that turned around of its own accord), fancy costumes (all black and glitter), and even a game of battledore, in which Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots traded shots over an imaginary net.
But the evening was historic for another reason: each choreographer, by agreement, could pick one dancer from the other’s company, and Balanchine chose Paul Taylor. Taylor could do anything on stage, from twisting himself into a ball of worms to flying across the air with the speed of a radio wave. Balanchine exploited all of Taylor’s talents, save one—the main one, and not only inappropriate to the occasion but invisible at the time. How could he know his Graham dancer was going to turn into a choreographer of the first rank?
Taylor’s troupe is now one of the few modern dance companies that can spend a month at the New York City Center and fill it up. His most recent season just ended, and watching his company one sensed something completely new to dance and peculiarly American—the playing field hovering at a discreet distance behind the scrim. Taylor’s use of sports is never thematic, like the semiliteral tennis match of Nijinsky’s Jeux, or openly suggested, like the scrimmage line one occasionally sees in Jerome Robbins’s work. It exists in the nature of how he conceives a dance, in the quality of the movement, the kind of energy expended. It is kinetic and daring and its impact is direct and visual. The strength of the football player, the speed and swerve of the hockey forward, the individual competitive grace of the tennis champion are present on Taylor’s stage. Swimming movements appear often: the stroke, the dive, the plunge. Taylor choreographs as naturally for the male body as Balanchine did for the female, and his is the only big dance company in which the male dancers are preeminent. They are a different kind of dancer than we have seen before. They come across as “real guys,” people who might have walked in off the street and are merely performing by some lucky accident for the moment, and for our benefit.
This illusory effect of a natural style is one of the company’s great achievements. The male dancers have a physical prowess and musculature we don’t always associate with dance, where bodies, well built as they may be, are not apt to be those of musclemen or candidates for magazinecover pinups. The Taylor company consists mainly of big men (though two new male dancers are smaller) modeled after the choreographer. Part of the excitement of Taylor’s virtuosity arose from wonder—how could anything so big move so fast?
The women in the company are just as good, and bear the same athletic stance, but we are not quite as conscious of them at first because the focus has shifted. Our eyes are used to following women in big dance companies. The change of emphasis seems, initially, peculiar. We become aware of the women slowly, just as in an Astaire film it is difficult, at the beginning, to watch his partner except at isolated moments. The look of the Taylor company has changed this year with the performances of Kate Johnson, and particularly in the new Equinox, set to the Brahms Quintet in F major. The solo Taylor has devised for Johnson is spectacular, and she dances it spectacularly, and it is followed by a pas de deux for her and Kenneth Tosti almost as arresting. Johnson has swiveled the eye back to the women in the company.
Equinox is a white ballet; it has the aura of the tennis court, if tennis were a game played around a Maypole. The circle is one of its important elements; both its first and second movements end in rounds, and the bravura solo for Johnson has a great deal to do with running around in circles. It is a romantic ballet, but fast, and often its swiftest passages occur within the phrasings of slow music, as if parentheses were slowly to fall in place from the sky while the words between them were being typed or uttered at great speed. More than any other Taylor dance it displays the Balanchine aptitude for cutting away from quartets into duos, of expanding duos into sudden trios, and so on. We are, after all, listening to chamber music.
A short duet for Elie Chaib and Linda Kent opens up into a more fluid and dramatically effective pas de deux for Johnson and Tosti. A characteristic and peculiar movement is the dancer’s head dropped straight back so that the face appears to fall backward and downward from the neck. It requires a supine position to be truly effective; what we see is the face, distorted, from the odd angle of someone upside-down, lying down. This slightly ghoulish look, repeated several times, becomes a motif. And there is one place where the unexpected forward kick of the girls brings back an image from Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.
Taylor isn’t a natural romantic, and if Equinox lacks the authority of sentiment, the exact pitch of Brahmsian tidal waves and languors, it has the soaring and buoyant virtues of the Bach Esplanade and the Handel Airs transplanted into the Edwardian era. The exuberance and churchly sadness of the classical and the baroque are more native to Taylor. The romantic requires a certain undercurrent of amorous longing or nostalgia to make itself felt. Though Taylor’s range is huge, relationships, in the Balanchine or Graham sense, are not his forte. Intimacy, and its usual opposing counterweights, loneliness and isolation, fall outside his main areas of interest. His two big subjects are resurrection and jubilation, and one often has to pass through nightmare to get from the passive worlds of sleep or death before one can proceed to renewal and the affirmation of joy. But when it comes, no one is more joyous than Taylor.
Of the nightmare dances, Runes revived this season, may be the most extended, with its blue moonlight, its spectral qualities, its sexual doubling, as if Eve were literally to materialize out of Adam’s body, as if the sexes—under the spell of what was once a single physical unity, or of sexual union—were still trying to get free of each other. Marine and insect images—the crab, the spider—appear in it often. (There are some photographs of Taylor performing in Balanchine’s Episodes on page 155 of The New York City Ballet in which those images appear.* ) And there are occasional echoes, at least for me, of Robbins’s The Cage, in the way the hands sometimes hang like loose appendages, dangling at the ends of arms.
Set to a perfectly matching piano score by the young American composer Gerald Busby, Runes is a long wake, its figures more spirit than human. Not one of Taylor’s engaging works, it delves into, and beyond, distorted memories of encounters, otherworldly, sexual, and primitive. At one point, Cathy McCann races across the stage and leaps into Elie Chaib’s arms with an audible thud. It has true moments of mystery, and is full of meetings and partings, of bodies—even dead bodies, it seems—being moved from one place to another, of experiences barely remembered, of random evolutionary messages not clearly understood, or meant to be. It is a difficult piece to end, and I’m not sure it actually does; it could go on longer or stop earlier, a weakness not characteristic of Taylor’s finest work. Arden Court, for instance (to music by the eighteenth-century composer William Boyce), is glorious from start to finish, its invention open, constantly refreshing itself by its own audacity, as if the high spirits of the six male dancers who enter so vigorously at its beginning only suggest the further possibilities that develop. It is often literally thrilling—a word one doesn’t use anymore, except among perfect intimates, to describe the goings-on in a theater.
Romance stirs more easily in Sunset, where the Elgar score seems to provide a little imperial scenario of its own: soldiers, girls, perhaps a port town?—the commonplaces of war, but in another country. A fence suggests a boundary (a barracks?), with the deeper implications of a border; two men stand behind it, stabled like horses, inwardly racing to get free. A duet for two men is wonderfully articulated by David Parsons and Christopher Gillis, with a dramatic passion new to each of them: it has qualities friendly, hostile, and sensuous, a kind of macho bravado interrupted by a gentleness surprising, even, it seems, to its performers. And Lila York, who dances with each of the men in turn, catches the exact tone of the piece, managing to be playful and melancholy at the same time.
The mood of Sunset, like Runes, is elegiac, as if the soldiers, in their innocence, suddenly discovered that death was their true business. Because feeling is in conflict with energy in Sunset there is a strange tenderness when a body is lifted from the ground; the floor is not only the center of gravity but that level on which love is made and from which the grave opens. When the bereft girl picks the red tam up from the stage floor we know that someone has not only departed but disappeared forever. Sunset, starting out as a kind of khaki Fancy Free, ends up with the tragic overcast of a Mahler song cycle. Like Big Bertha—also revived this season—with its small-town, macabre, Hitchcock-movie murder acted out to American band and calliope music, Sunset is a story ballet if one is willing to stretch the notion of narrative to subliminal action—the story, half guesswork, told by suggestion.
In Equinox and Airs and Esplanade, the girls sometimes walk up the steps of the men’s back, pivot on the trampolines of their tensed stomachs, or leap off their backs. Men’s bodies are ingeniously used as living props—a slow male plié allows a thigh to be conveniently offered as a stepping stone for a girl casually crossing the stage; a leg is lifted just in time to make room for someone to emerge from under its arc. Taylor’s stage sometimes has the appearance of Orson Welles’s sensational Japanese circus turn (in mustard and pink) in the stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days, with loops, turns, wide swings of both the arms and the legs, and jumping lifts.
…Byzantium, along with Equinox one of the two new works of the season, gets its title from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” whose last line, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come” was quoted in the program. (With its first “or” missing—a typographical mishap.) The first two sections reverse Yeats’s order: “Passing” precedes “Or Past,” which is followed by “Or to Come.” The curtain rises on a low horizontal wall, possibly mosaic—a row of stars at the top, stripes below. The stage is foreshortened, the dancers close to the stage apron, to increase the sense of oppression and crowding. The dance begins with a fast, contorted solo by David Parsons, and then the stage suddenly swarms with street people: punks, half-clothed urchins, after-hour addicts dressed in the junk regalia of the East Village. They move frenetically, without direction. Chaos is come again—and again and again.
The second section is a dramatic surprise—four serene figures, tall in the gorgeous raiments of the East—golds, silvers, and whites splashed with peacock colors—move in a stately manner. They open and close their mouths, but whether in prayer, an act of communion, or ingestion (could they be devouring gold?) isn’t clear. Behind them, a Byzantine mosaic square forms the setting. The effect is rich, sacramental—Greek Orthodox priests in summer garb. The figures, ancient and traditional, dance with a formal elegance matching their appearance; we are in the presence of the ecclesiastical and the opulent.
In the third section, the dancers of the first two sections meet. One of the priest-like figures seems to have grown top-heavy, become taller, as if on stilts. Bodies, in insectlike pileups, accumulate and roll across the back of the stage in a jumble. Tradition, projected into the future, has become oversized, out of scale, but whether the process rejuvenates or corrupts remains moot. One doesn’t know how to take these figures as they walk among the street people, now dressed in futuristic metallic costumes of burnished copper and bronze. Have the great ideas of the past been misinterpreted or misapplied? Have the street people (representing the community at large?) become slaves to tradition? False tradition? Distorted the messages of history? Only one thing is clear: what was once authority has turned into the authoritarianism of regimentation.
One of the troubles may be that the Yeats poem is about one thing and the dance another. In the poem, the narrator yearns to be a work of art rather than the creator of one, for a simple reason: art outlasts its makers. (Or as Proust put it, “The desire for immortality dies on death beds.”) “Sailing to Byzantium,” by being one of the great poems of the English language, and meant to last, is unwittingly ironic; it is itself the very thing its creator wants to be. The thrust of Taylor’s dance is social commentary, its relation to art and immortality tangential, and it is just possible the Yeats poem was the wrong jumping-off place to begin with. And then the Varèse score with its sharp, rhythmic effects, its distinctive percussive sound, has an insistent tonal coloration; there’s no chance for a contrasting lyrical outburst.
I have a hunch…Byzantium looked better in rehearsal. Putting the sets and costumes together may have come as a surprise to Taylor; his usual clarity is lost in a multitude of effects. Taylor may be too inventive a choreographer….Byzantium needed a clearer line of action, more easily discerned patterns, and a dramatically satisfying climax.
Taylor is not an obscure choreographer; none of his dances, even at their most mysterious, is enigmatic….Byzantium was trying to say more than actually got said. The burden of the strangled message is rare for Taylor because almost everything he does has an intuitive sense of rightness, a built-in way of getting meaningfully from here to there.
The difficulty of categorizing Taylor is part of his genius, for he eludes captivity in a phrase, being one of those sophisticated naifs who thrive on contradiction: a private man practicing a public art; a big boy in a small bad world he took a bead on years ago. He has a vaudevillian’s sense of repertory, and a classical style to go with it. Yet his work remains markedly personal. His comic sense is risky: The Rite of Spring is witty, Snow White, in which two of the dwarfs are missing in action, merely whimsical. It dangerously skirts the edge of cuteness. But could one ever get enough of Arden Court? Or Airs? Or Esplanade? Of the many kinds of dances he does I like the big group works best, where he seems freest, objectified, geared up to respond to larger meanings, more breathtaking exaltations. And, second, the dark, hallucinatory pieces like Profiles and Runes. If he doesn’t have what Balanchine had (who does?), where one pas de deux (Agon) or two (Stravinsky Violin Concerto) are worth thinking about for the rest of your life, he comes close. Airs has touches of the Master; its speed—and it is very fast indeed—is contained within larger andante movements, its clockwork action finely edited to fit the phrasing of individual measures of music. Taylor has something we rarely see combined: innocence and intelligence. And he provides what only a handful of choreographers provide—moments that go on living in the mind.
One of the triumphs of his company is to have made an unexpected marriage between the ordinary and the Italian Renaissance, as if the people one passes every day on the street and Piero della Francesca saints were embodied in the same physical space and time. His dancers arrive on stage with the tipsy, elated air of angels. The energy is contemporary, the preoccupation with order ancient. Taylor is one of the few choreographers influenced by a world of subways, lunch counters, crowds, TV, airports, outer space, movies, and cars who also respond to the great structures of the past—to Bach, Handel, and Boyce. He was a Martha Graham dancer for eight years and he is the only dancer ever to perform the solo Balanchine choreographed for him in Episodes. Out of those two facts one could launch several mythologies. But even if we can’t put the genes on a slide, I think it would be fair to say that the Paul Taylor Dance Company, without losing any of its singular edge, weaves the two great strands of dance in our time into an original fabric of its own. Like Graham, Taylor has a feeling for the floor, and his dancers seem actually to hurl themselves into the ground, rising at almost the same moment with the energy of lightning, to bring Esplanade to its whiz-bang conclusion. And he has Balanchine’s feeling for the air, for the off-balanced chanciness of heights.
May 31, 1984
The New York City Ballet, text by Lincoln Kirstein, photographs by Martha Swope and George Platt Lynes (Knopf, 1973). ↩