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Paul Taylor Dance Company - 'Black Tuesday,' 'Le Grand Puppetier,' and 'Promethean Fire'

Taylor’s Muse of Fire

by Stephen Arnold

July 3, 2004 – Jacob’s Pillow, MA

Because in 2000 Jacob’s Pillow asked Paul Taylor for a new work, Deborah Jowitt asked Taylor in a public forum held to proclaim that work in Blake’s Barn (a restored late 18th century barn donated by and named in honor of the dancer son of Marge Champion (Disney’s model for Snow White) to the 18th century farm now called Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and used by the Pillow as library, archive, education, and welcome center) what his works were about. Taylor sphinx-like answered, “Death,” and then he asked, “Can there be anything else?”

Because her Nurse said that Romeo had killed Tybalt and was banished for his crime, Juliet tore a cat with a cascade of binary oppositions, and in her stream of words for Romeo, “Fiend Angelical” vibrated like red against green or C against F sharp. And Taylor’s new work for the Pillow in 2000, “Fiends Angelical,” resonates still with Juliet’s weaving and moving mix of contraries. And like Juliet, Taylor found angels within fiends or a sense of abandonment within commitment, or visa versa and more. Taylor’s dark and comic and Faulknerian vision, however, replaces the idea of Providence held by Juliet’s world if not by Juliet as a morally informed decree of divinity with an indifferent geometry of eternally recycling patterns - patterns such as birth and death and the contraries inherent in moral (and aesthetic) values. We endure. “Black Tuesday,” “Le Grand Puppetier,” and “Promethean Fire,” the three works performed by the Taylor Company at the Pillow this season, describe Taylor’s vision.

If light informs August, then darkness can inform a Tuesday. Eight songs from the Great Depression (and, what was so ‘great’ about the Depression, a survivor might ask) detail the particulars of life in the decade before WW II. And the backdrops that divide the eight songs of Black Tuesday into thirds also serve as signposts that point the way to the world-view held in the program’s three works. “Underneath the Arches,” for example, which is set on a duet for out of work male hoofers that resemble Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader (or Wheeldon’s Rothbart) features a heavily textured back drop almost X-ed out by a crisscross of steel structures.

The lyrics of the song in the center of “Black Tuesday,” titled “Sittin’ on a Rubbish Can,” describes the plight of an abandoned and pregnant woman who dances her story against a formally simpler and more distant view of a city skyline at night. “Black Tuesday” ends with “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” the lyrics of which faithfully summarize the descent suffered by millions during the Depression from economic and spiritual well being into despair and uncertainty. The company dances the story of “Brother” and concludes “Black Tuesday” against a star field backdrop.

Visually, the backdrops mark a philosophical road that begins with the business and particulars of the quotidian world and continues, but cannot end because the infinite cannot end, into the star field of the universal. But, the distant yet lived in shapes of Black Tuesday’s city-scape backdrop indicate a focus mid way between the messy particulars of living and reason’s particulars wasting universals. “There’s No Depression in Love” and “I went Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead” are, like the lights in the dark geometrical shapes of the city-scape buildings, the heat of human desire manifest, for example, in the pursuit of love and the quest to find the guilty reasons - a big bad wolf or a white whale- for human sin and suffering.

Because it is played on black and white keys, Taylor’s choice of the pianola version of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” for Le Grand Puppetier underscores the relationship between the abstract values implied by the white costumed Puppet and the black costumed Emperor. And, because “Le Grand Puppetier” features a mix of humans and puppets and magic it aptly illustrates a world part way between the messy particulars of living and distant moral abstractions. The willfulness of the “La fille mal gardee”-like plot Taylor imposes on Stravinsky’s music balances the determinism implied by the Emperor’s imposition of absolute power, the mechanical or puppet like behavior that that power demands (whether black or white), and the pianola score.

Moreover, the orchestral color or life that the piano version bleaches from the score, Taylor restores with the carnival-like colors and quality of the costumes worn by the human characters and with the marriage, against the will of the Emperor, of its irrepressible lovers. And while the White Puppet managed to check the Black Emperor’s power with the theft of his magic wand, the happiness brought by the wedding celebration that the theft afforded, however, drove all care of the magic wand away, and the Emperor slinked back in and reclaimed his power giving prize. At curtain fall, darkness and an awkward, weighted angularity returned to the world of “Le Grand Puppetier.”

Contrary in form, the fiend-like Black Emperor and the angel-like White Puppet in “Le Grand Puppetier” are distinct and unchangeable, and yet in “Fiends Angelical” fiends become angels suggesting that forms can change. One fantasizes next that like the morning star and the evening star, what really makes fiend and angel different is context. They are then the same star or ‘thing’ and always there. But whom else besides Romeo would a ‘fiend angelical’ look like? Prometheus, one thinks. And in spite of conflicting claims, it was Prometheus that created humanity and then saved it from the wrath of Zeus. Cursed he was for defying his Lord and perhaps too by those humans driven (and mostly defeated) by his gift of fire or that intellectual and emotional passion that strives to find life’s ultimate meaning by hunting wolves or whales.

“Death, can there be anything else,” Taylor asked.

“Black, coffin black” (Gustav von Auschenbach from the operatic “Death in Venice”) are the costumes for “Promethean Fire.” The dance is company sized and features form and pattern everywhere, yet with its emphasis on a hetero couple, one senses a creation story. And in the midst of the frothy, gaseous, and volcanic orchestration of Captain Nemo’s signature music, the pure forms of the Promethean world collapses at center stage into a pile of human dancers. And from this wreckage or perhaps primordial mass a male figure- a stand in for all of humanity, one thinks-triumphantly emerges. In fact, the final tableau, a cluster of dancers in celebratory gestures pose against a row of ladies in a flight-like pose held on the shoulders of their male partners (like Ivan and the Firebird), promotes continuity and community. As a marriage of contraries, “Promethean Fire” seems to have stepped out of a Blakean sort of imagination. Yet, the matter of fact-ness of incident in “Black Tuesday” meets the exaggeration of behavior in “Le Grand Puppetier” to suggest a Faulknerian world informed by a Titan’s if not Plato’s endless patterns of light and dark. Patterns that in some way make human life a theatre - a long running show, in fact, that makes Death grin - of reproducing puppets.

Edited by Jeff.

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