Saturday, February 10, 2018

Paul Taylor Dance Company visits Clowes Hall with three strong pieces from its vast repertoire

The Paul Taylor dance universe was subject to some focused star-gazing Friday night at Clowes Hall.
Masked and elegant: The climax of "Cloven Kingdom"
The visiting modern-dance troupe, a solid force in its field for several decades, presented a program constructed like a concerto: a challenging, attention-grabbing, fast-paced first movement; a contemplative, slow-paced Adagio, with some briskness inserted; and a finale weighted toward a memorable "message" of stress and resolution.

The program spanned 1976 to 2002, and, taken together, the works displayed the versatility of the dancers in the 18-member touring troupe. "Cloven Kingdom" made for a high-relief calling card: Its coordinated crudity and elegance are woven into unity through a striking score juxtaposing Corelli concerto grosso movements from the baroque era with percussion ensemble (Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller).

This ambitious classic requires a wide range of expressive movement, some of it sweeping and patrician, some of it evoking primitive ritual dances.  Carrying an epigraph from the Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza — "Man is a social animal" — "Cloven Kingdom" expands on wisdom that is by now a truism. The work is expansive anthropology in dance form: Through all eras, human beings find different ways to relate to one another in groups, flowing between tendencies toward equality and toward hierarchy. Headgear initially appears on one woman, dutifully attended by a female underling; eventually these odd, shiny hats are the norm as "Cloven Kingdom" approaches a collective statement.

All along the way, the impression is that trial and error, fads and evolving values, have loosely governed changes in social behavior. The white-tie-and-tails for the men, the pastel-colored, long-skirted dresses for the women speak to an aspiration toward more high-minded interaction, even at the risk of pretentious sophistication. The tension is underlined by a host of sudden reversions to tics and gestures from primitivism, even animal life. Early on, the women move bent forward, their arms at right angles, forearms down, hands back, twitching almost like insects. Statuesque figures face stonily forward; then their heads nod down and from side to side in the manner of animal self-grooming. At one point, the men hop jerkily with wide stances, facing outward. Two women link arms to twirl like folk dancers and fall simultaneously a moment later. Mating dances and ballroom dance compete on equal footing.

The effect of such flashes of primitivism is comic, but Taylor's choreography holds back from the comedy of technique. Whether Corelli or the drummers hold momentary sway, the dancing that the contrasting styles accompany is balanced and coherent, despite the wide spectrum of movement. The tour de force is an episode for the four men. Just about everything professional dancers do looks difficult to me, but the requirements here seem fantastically difficult, especially when carried out in formal wear. The abrupt, unconventional head movements alone would seem to invite injury. This quartet drew wild cheers from the audience.

"Eventide" provided a respite after the first intermission. It's a lyrical piece performed against a
The moment of rescue and revival in "Promethean Fire"
backdrop of bare trees in twilight. The dusky atmosphere is host to a series of duets framed by ensembles for the eight dancers. Stages or perhaps just aspects of couples relationships are sketched, with emphasis on depth of rapport rather than surface attraction. Flirting, abandonment, calmness and exuberance are set in soft-focus splendor to deeply centered music (much of it spearheaded by solo viola) by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The finale, "Promethean Fire," shifted the program back to the threats and promises faced by people in the larger world. In a panel discussion the night before, one of the dancers noted that Taylor rejects the suggestion that the 2002 work was provoked by 9/11, but the veteran choreographer is known for not directing public response to his art by any verbal cues, especially topical ones. The ancient Greek half-god who defied Zeus by bringing fire to humankind is, of course, essential to understanding the work.

But what Prometheus suffered as a consequence is less dealt with here than the effect on humanity of advancing beyond what seems to have been ordained. The full company, in black costumes that emphasize uniformity, is under lighting that resembles the well-defined light and shadow of Mannerist painting. To Leopold Stokowski's garish orchestral arrangements of three pieces by J.S. Bach, the action is necessarily shaped as consequential in all respects. Survival is the goal, after which thriving may have a chance.

The striding, purposeful shifts of the troupe, the forest-like solid look of the dancers' upraised arms, and the determined, face-forward postures are subjected to blurring and disintegration. A hard-to-identify menace is at work. There's a climactic collapse at the center, then a Promethean gesture of renewal that gradually lifts the company back into collective freedom. The last few measures of music are accompanied by a sudden accession to ensemble grandeur. It seemed the perfect capstone of this extraordinary troupe's arch of triumph here.