Tonight I went to see the Paul Taylor dance company at the Music Center in Los Angeles. As I have mentioned here before, I attend nearly all of the dance series at the Dorothy Chandler and the Disney Center, since I have come to believe that some of the most interesting and innovative things being done in the arts in this country today are occurring in dance. I had heard of the Paul Taylor company, of course, but I had never seen it, and so I was anxious to get tickets, since I had long read that Taylor was an innovator-cum-icon in the world of modern dance.
The program began with seven members of the company dancing to selections from the Handel Concerti Grossi, which is among my favorite pieces of music. Now let me pause for a moment to speak of the Concerti Grossi. It was for pieces such as this that Handel was Beethoven's favorite composer; indeed, when, late in life, Beethoven was given as a gift the complete Handel scores, he wept openly. Listening to the music tonight, in accompaniment to the dancers, I was reminded of why this was so: the music is wonderful and varied, alternatively tender and playful, solemn, touching and antic. And the Paul Taylor dancers did it full justice in their interpretation, called Airs. The costumes were as simple and traditional as was the choreography, and it all worked beautifully. The dancers were skilled, well-trained and attractive. There was nothing to complain about, save a sudden slip by one of the females, which just served to remind the audience that the dancers, for all their grace and physical beauty, are, after all, human.
Second on the program was "Banquet for Vultures," a very dark and disturbing meditation on tyranny and the inevitability of war. A charismatic leader arises, sends all the young people off to war, manages to extinguish the last faint spark of hope for something better and more humane; and then another brutal tyrant is born, and the whole dehumanizing process begins again. One of the most interesting moments in this piece was the appearance of the second tyrant, whose tortuous pangs I initially took, in puzzlement, for death throes; but, it then became clear to me, were, in fact, birth writhing. All this was atmospherically rendered, with deep shadows and camouflage and candles, performed to a score that can only be described as sparse and strangulated.
Last on the program was a dance set to music from Smetana's "Bartered Bride," a piece I had often heard and never really liked. Paul Taylor, however, made me realize that the work does, indeed, sound like the buzzing of frantic insects, which is how he incorporated it. His "Gossamer Gallants" represents the fervent mating of insects, and, as planned, it drew a great deal of laughter from the audience. It was, in fact, delightfully silly, the men dressed as Mayflies and the women as, well, some female version thereof. The piece, with all its acrobatic and naughty momentum, served to remind us of the fact that when many species of female insects mate, they consummate the copulation by killing the males. (The equivalent of this in our society, of course, is the divorce court.) It was well and wistfully danced, and was, I think, the audience's favorite.
Overall, the Paul Taylor company's strategy was simple and effective: Make them admire you (the Handel), make them respect you (the Vultures), and make the love you (the insects). All that said, and though I enjoyed the evening, I found there was something trite about the choreography, something dated and predictable; not as if we had seen it before, but as if it presaged much of what we are now seeing and are likely to see in future. For all that Paul Taylor is hailed as an legend, his choreography struck me as comfortably conventional. (I was reminded of a recent reenactment of Nijinsky's choreography of the Rite of Spring, which played merely as ridiculous today, though it provoked a riot in the theater at its premiere in 1913.) Perhaps thirty years ago Taylor's choreography would have been cutting-edge fare; now it just seems adequate and quaint; enough, I kept thinking, to entertain the audience and justify the prices of the seats. It was more entertaining than, say, the Nederlans Dans Theater, whose work I found ugly and depressing, a kind of noir fraud; though not as quirky and delicious as the program of the Hubbard Street dance company of Chicago, which offered one original and clever surprise after the other.
I can't help but feel that Paul Taylor's company, with all its technical skill, unmistakable artistry and fine training, needs an injection of something new. Perhaps it is time, after fifty years of creative brilliance, for Maestro Paul to step aside, and let someone wholly new and eccentric take the reins - the young Matthew Bourne, whoever that may be. I am sure these marvelous dancers could handle it.