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WHITMAN SAMPLER: Choreographer confirms his place in pantheon of American heroes

Are you as tired as I am of country singers and demagogues telling you what it is that makes America great? Freedom, family values, guns, pickup trucks. Choreographer Paul Taylor embodies, as much as any American I know, the values that have made this country strong:  At 79, he still works like the devil every day, using his God-given genius to make art that enriches our lives year in, year out. His body of work, 131 pieces and counting, is as impressive as that of any living artist in any art form, and for decades it has served as an ambassador around the world — evidence of the “other” heart of America that people outside this country see far too little of.

Kansas City was treated to two evenings of Taylor’s work on November 13-14, courtesy of the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College. This fifth appearance of the Paul Taylor Dance Company at JCCC (previously the company was a regular guest of the Harriman-Jewell Series) included two repertoire works (Scudorama, recently revived, and Offenbach Overtures) and three pieces created in 2008 and 2009. The new works were featured on the November 14 program I attended, and each showed, in its own way, that this remarkable creator’s energies remain undiminished. One of them, Brief Encounters, was co-commissioned by the Performing Arts Series, and had received its premiere just eight days earlier in Syracuse, N.Y.

Changes, from 2008, is another in a long line of ballets set to popular songs, this time of the Mamas and the Papas. If only Twyla Tharp knew what a Pandora’s Box she had opened when she created what was probably the first such piece, the 1973 Deuce Coupe, to Beach Boys songs. I generally find that my response to these is affected by my level of enthusiasm about the songs in question, but here Taylor has created a joyously witty, vaguely silly and at times brooding piece with songs that I wouldn’t have thought of choreographing. Santo Loquasto has dressed the dancers in 1970s psychedelia that may cause boomers to grow nostalgic, and the first piece “Straight Shooter” introduces two vigorous couples who represent, in broad terms perhaps, the group’s four singers (one sports a mustache not unlike that worn by the late John Phillips).

For “California Earthquake,” Annmaria Mazzini jovially punches and kicks the ensemble to the floor, just as a good earthquake would do, and for “I Call Your Name” Laura Halzack makes a splendid spectacle of herself with four men who taunt and contort her (a ’70s orgy?). Everyone gets stoned, of course, in “Mansions,” and after staggering about they break into a delicious protest march. James Samson has a hallucinatory dream/trip in “Dancing Bear,” an allegory that plays out before a brightly-colored décor of a rustic village. Francisco Graciano appears in a bear suit, which he removes to dance an amiable duet; later he spreads it over Samson as a blanket. “California Dreamin’” forms the floppy, casual finale, in which the ensemble seems half in a drugged stupor. Changes might not amount to much, but it contains plenty of Taylor’s wry irony and humor. Still, as surprised as I was by some of the song choices — the lame “Straight Shooter” and a Beatles cover to boot (“I Call Your Name”) — I was more surprised by the ones not used: “Monday, Monday,” “Dream a Little Dream,” “Dedicated to One I Love,” for starters.  

Brief Encounters is set to Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner for piano, in a tepid orchestration by André Caplet, the recording of which for some reason was played so softly (by design?) that one could scarcely make out some of the pianissimo passages. The curtain rises to an ensemble dressed in black underwear and frozen in a florid Tayloresque pose, which they break to engage in a series of severe leaps diagonally across the stage. A male solo ensues (Samson), which with the entrance of Julie Tice becomes a playful pas de deux, followed by a striking scene of two trios of dancers in silhouette against Yardley’s bare back wall, spiraling and stepping gingerly over each others’ joined arms. Garish lights come up to reveal a lone woman preening in a mirror; a man rejects her beauty (or her narcissism), which sends her into a gracefully spasmodic tantrum. The series of encounters and liaisons — some child-like, some showing adolescent and even adult turmoil — culminates in Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” set as a series of strutting ensembles full of not-always-whimsical rough-and-tumble. If Brief Encountersdepicts children, these kids are well on their way to the cynicism of adulthood, for beneath these games lurks a murky heart.

The delight of the evening was Beloved Renegade, which for all its over-familiar Taylor moves is one of his most gorgeous and haunting recent works. Radiantly lit by Jennifer Tipton, it carries that bright “glow” of Taylor’s most solidly classical works, even while its contrapuntal layering of narratives will doubtless keep audiences puzzling over it for years. Set to Francis Poulenc’s magnificent Gloria, it does not shun the music’s liturgical text but does not always embrace it in obvious ways, either. The ostensible narrative, in fact, is driven by the titles Taylor has printed in the program, drawn from Walt Whitman’s poetry of celebration, love, the body and death.

Loquasto has clothed the ensemble in pale hues; Michael Trusnovec, who seems to represent both Whitman and Christ, is dressed in white. At the outset (“I am the poet of the body”) he cocks his arms high and low, and the ensemble mimics him. He grows ecstatic in the Laudamus te (“I sing the body electric”), and is led about by his muse/angel (Halzack) for “I bend to the dying lad.” He mourns lost “soldiers” as Whitman did, and sends them offstage as they die (Domine Fili unigenite). The sublimeAgnus Dei ushers in a solemn procession of the company winding downstage, as Trusnovec prostrates himself, swishes his arms, prays, clenches his fists. In the bracing finale (“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love”), initial joy gives way to a series of farewells, after which Trusnovec falls backward, palms to the floor, to his death. The muse rotates slowly over him — protecting, guarding, guiding — as the curtain falls. It is a startlingly beautiful finish to a work that feels destined for a place in Taylor’s top drawer.

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Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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