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Paul Taylor Dance Company

Program I: 'Offenbach Overtures,' 'Fields of Grass,' 'Promethean Fire'

by Lisa Claybaugh

March 26, 2003 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco, CA

As one of the most well-respected modern dance troupes in America, I had high expectations for Paul Taylor Dance Company's performance. I had not seen this company in a good ten years. There are many new faces on the roster, which brings fresh energy to the company, but also inconsistency of technique in some pieces.

The first piece “Offenbach Overtures” is a send up of all things baroque and ballet. Performed to a series of overtures and dances by Jacques Offenbach, there was wit and whimsy, but the ballet-based movement did not show the company at its technical best. I caught myself wondering if a ballet company could do this little parody better, but decided not, because where a ballet company would get the legs higher, the lines cleaner, and the balances more solid, they would not be able to pull off the satire. In the end that comic ability was what I focused on, along with a few of the stand out dancers.

San Francisco native Lisa Viola wins the prize for best character development. Her stilted awkwardness was carried throughout every step of the piece with such reliability that I actually began to wonder if she really danced like that. A scene in which a duel goes hysterically awry was very well acted and danced by Patrick Corbin, Richard Chen See, Michael Trusnovec, and Robert Kleinendorst. The costumes were caricatures of 19th century ballroom fare with tulle skirts and Napoleonic hats over bright red unitards.

“Fields of Grass” struck me as Paul Taylor’s version of the musical “Hair." Every theme of the ‘60’s was represented: free love, drug use, hallucinogens, bell-bottoms, drug withdrawal, civil disobedience, communing with nature. The music was provided by the songs of Harry Nilsson, a pop-rocker of the age. The costumes consisted of bell-bottom jeans and an assortment of tank tops and bell-baring blouses.

Although the choreography was for the most part standard-issue Taylor and somewhat uninspired, the dancing was much cleaner and tighter than in the first piece and, ultimately, more joyful. Michelle Fleet, particularly, seemed to grasp the freedom and bliss inherent in the movement.

The last piece, “Promethean Fire,” made up for the disappointments of the first two pieces. The Wednesday night performance was its West Coast premiere.

The choreography moved the dancers through an every changing array of kaleidoscope patterns to the most passionate of J.S. Bach’s organ music, orchestrated by Leopold Stowowski. The dancers darted in and out of complicated floor patterns, taking just a moment to soar through the air when the music seemed to drive them to it. This was the best representation of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor I have ever seen. It captured the passion, the gloom, and the velocity in the music.

The second section of the piece was a duet for Lisa Viola and Michael Trusnovec that continued the melancholy of the first section and slowed it down with innovative partnering. The finale was a re-examination of the movement themes of the first section and ended with a grand tableau using all 16 dancers in various states of contortion and elevation. This was Paul Taylor at his best and most inspired.

This company is hailed as one of the most accessible of the modern dance companies. And they are. Despite some sloppiness in the first piece, the performance on a whole was first-rate. The company appears to be in transition with many new dancers emerging while the veterans withdraw to behind the scenes. The future still looks exciting.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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