This month I have had the chance to see performances by the Buglisi Dance Theatre and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. These are choreographers with vastly different aesthetics — Jacqulyn Buglisi tends towards grace and grandeur, while Taylor’s pieces often seem to delight in the everyday.
The dancers of Buglisi Dance Theatre are perhaps the chief reason to see this company, which performed at the Joyce last week. These remarkable dancers have formidable technique (many are trained in the Martha Graham style), and they are capable of infusing their dancing with drama, humor, and wit. Their gifts were particularly evident in Requiem, the first piece on the program. In this work, the gravitas of Fauré’s score flows up their straight backs and out through their eyes; there is conviction in every contraction of their spines, every movement of their hands and arms.
There are two images that have been rattling about in my head since watching this Requiem. One is more blatantly magnificent: the five dancers step onto raised platforms and wrap their long skirts about their feet so they look seven-feet tall; they are goddesses, austere and larger-than-life as they reach their arms upwards into light. The other image is from the very beginning of the piece, when the curtain parts to reveal these same square blocks, swathed in yards of rich fabric like abandoned furniture covered against dusty light that bends its way through shadows. It is only when these figures began to move that I realized that I was looking at five dancers, their bodies, once collapsed in on themselves, now slowly unfurling.
This Requiem moves vertically. The contrasts in the piece are borne of changes in height, as when those women descend from their perches to scuttle like crabs upon the earth. These juxtapositions are affecting. But while the choreography can (and often does) rise to the heights of Fauré’s score, it does not quite express the musics’s breadth and layers, the hills and valleys that make it richly full of life. Buglisi understands the soaring transcendence that the music, as a whole, conveys, but her choreography sometimes lacks its texture.
That said, Requiem is so visually arresting that any flaws almost cease to matter. The same is not true, though, in Letters of Love on Ripped Paper, a new work set to a commissioned score by Daniel Brewbaker. In many ways, Letters is an ambitious piece; at the same time it seems far too content to provide an easy viewing experience for the audience. Buglisi has brought together several theatrical elements, juxtaposing spoken word with music, pure dance with pantomime, digital images with costumes inspired by markedly un-digital times. It is a commendable effort, but it doesn’t quite work.
The bigger problem with Letters, though, is the bite-sized, pre-digested nuggets on love it dishes out. The piece, as its title suggests, takes love letters as its theme: the letters read aloud range from the eloquent and witty (sonnets by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example) to the banal (a gossipy epistle from the Civil War). In this respect, Buglisi’s ambition seems to flag: some of the dance/letter combinations are distressingly literal, and the piece descends into a series of truisms about love (both heard and seen).
Of the three pieces I saw performed by Paul Taylor Dance Company, only Company B (one of his most famous pieces) was entirely successful. The other two — a new work called Phantasmagoria and a revival, The Word – were more problematic.
Inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s unpretentious paintings of Dutch peasants and set to anonymous Renaissance music, Phantasmagoria yet manages to be pretentiously self-satisfied and smug. One of my favorite poems by William Carlos Williams (“The Dance“) is also inspired by a Bruegel painting. Williams seems to understand this painter, known for depicting great crowds of people, in a way that Taylor does not: the people depicted in the paintings are all involved in their own lives, eating and drinking, dancing, skating, chattering. In Williams’ poem, the lines sing, the rhythm (like that of an energetic dance) rollicking along; with these cascading, twisting words, this slice of life is cluttered, busy, and animated.
The peasants of Bruegel’s two-dimensional paintings and Williams’ poem are far more exciting than those that populate Phantasmagoria: the latter seem mere devices, conduits through which Taylor may joke about religion and sexuality and early modern life, rather than real people. But then, none of the characters here transcend stereotypes. Taylor’s piece is a mishmash of characters: a nun, an Irish step dancer (in drag), a drunk in a tattered suit and bowler hat, and three Isadora Duncan lookalikes, with red flowers in their softly curled hair. All are summarily mocked: the nun is hypocritical (she dances suggestively with a snake), the white clad Isadora Duncans have no relation to the real world, and so on. It’s all quite predictable and not particularly clever.
The Word is somewhat more interesting, though as in Phantasmagoria, the somewhat preachy, stringently thematic tone grows tiresome. The piece, set to a score by David Israel, begins with men and women dressed in high-waisted britches, white shirts, and suspenders — members, it seems, of a strict religious group. Throughout the work a wild-haired woman enters and exits: her sinuous dancing contrasts with the more confined and ritualized movements of the other dancers.
Company B, however, possesses a wonderful mixture of humanity and intelligence. Using a pastiche of songs by the Andrews Sisters, Taylor recreates the times of World War II. The backdrop is an opaque gray: sometimes it seems to hide the war from view, at other times its gloom seems to encroach on the determined cheerfulness of the dancers. (In D.H. Lawrence’s novel St. Mawr, the characters talk about things being “frantically” lovely, “frightfully” cheerful; though Taylor’s characters dance through a different war, their steps convey the same sort of desperate happiness as Lawrence’s tellingly dismal adverbs.)
What is great about Company B is that it doesn’t approach its theme with unbending vigor. There are plenty of lighthearted scenes — like a geeky Johnny who somehow manages to garner the affections of all the women he sees — and lots and lots of dancing. Cynicism is good for thoughtless laughs, as Taylor proves in Phantasmagoria, but the humor he achieves here, built upon a muted backdrop of loss, is far more lasting.