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Paul Taylor Dance Company - 'Black Tuesday,'
'Le Grand Puppetier,' and 'Promethean Fire'
by Stephen Arnold
July 3, 2004 – Jacob’s
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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