Puzzles and Solutions

Paul Taylor Dance Company

At Campbell Hall, Wednesday, April 26.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Paul Taylor loves puzzles: he’s an avid jigsaw fan who approaches choreography as a problem-solving exercise. As his company general manager John Tomlinson put it after Wednesday night’s show at UCSB, “He solves the music.”

According to Tomlinson, Taylor hates ballet — or says he does. You wouldn’t know it to see his new “Spring Rounds” — a sprightly, pastoral affair full of the technical elegance and heightened delicacy of ballet. “Rounds” references everything from the pas de deux to the pas de bourré. The piece is a throwback to earlier Taylor works like “Esplanade”— the playful courtship, the family photo poses, its unclouded sunniness something of an anachronism. And though the dancers, in their lime green tights and diaphanous sleeves, threw themselves into the work with touching sincerity, “Spring Rounds” lacked spark. Taylor’s muse, Lisa Viola, was less than shining in her solos. It was as though things had tipped too far to one end of the spectrum, and rather than the lighter side of Taylor, we got Taylor-lite.

“Nightshade,” a gothic Victorian melodrama from 1979, carried more impact. Madmen and hunchbacks twitched while corseted women clutched at one another’s heavy skirts, fainted and woke again to writhe along the floor, then buried their heads against their knees like plumed ostriches, bottoms up. Luscious dark sepia lighting spilled rich and bloody across a tortured pantomime of supplicating outstretched arms, always against figures of contrast: the reclining, pipe-smoking gentleman, or the eerily innocent ring-curled girl.

Nowhere was contrast so artfully employed as in the modern masterpiece “Promethean Fire,” set to Bach’s ominous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Bach has always been one of Taylor’s central inspirations — probably because his particular blend of order and complexity appeals to a problem-solving mind — and in “Promethean Fire,” that challenge has pushed Taylor to new heights. Begun in stillness, 16 dancers stood with downcast eyes and somber faces — an understated but deeply striking image. In identical black bodysuits they began to flock together, weaving around and through one another, flowing and passing like dark birds. At first linear and severe, their movements turned to a series of falls and recoveries. Dancers stumbled across the stage carrying two others at a time, waddling with arms flailing before collapsing to the floor. One fallen figure initiated a pileup, and then emerged from the mass standing, victorious but vulnerable. Possibly the real triumph of “Promethean Fire” was its lack of narrative, its realization in movement of a score so familiar and so foreboding. For years Paul Taylor has worked on jigsaw puzzles while listening to Bach. He has plenty of practice fitting the pieces into place.

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