It’s the year of his 80th birthday and his company’s 56th, but age hasn’t slowed Paul Taylor down. The American choreographer is still cranking out dances at the rate of two per year—dances that defy expectations even as they adhere to the neoclassical movement vocabulary that has been Taylor’s trademark since the 1950s. Last week at the Granada, the Paul Taylor Dance Company presented a program of three works, including last year’s “Brief Encounters,” which is ostensibly about sexual desire and is performed in underwear.
Victoria’s Secret and MTV may have inured us to images of the nearly naked body in suggestive poses, but in this context—live on a concert dance stage—it toes the line of titillation. That’s Taylor’s intention, of course. It’s also no coincidence that this swirling mass of nubile men and women strut, writhe, and chase one another against a backdrop of classical colonnades like Bacchanalian revelers, nor that at times the lights dim and the plot darkens: A man drags a woman across the floor by her ankle, while another draws out a dagger and threatens to use it. Meanwhile, one woman can’t pry herself away from her own reflection and loses a chance at love because of it. Some things, Taylor’s saying, never change.
“Brief Encounters” is risqué in its way, but 1977’s “Dust” dances with an even riskier topic: physical disability. If you didn’t know what he had in mind, you might call this work “silly”; once you know, though, the silly looks more like spastic. Dancers in buff-colored unitards with tattoo designs bop their heads vigorously side to side and pop into second position straight-legged, balancing on their heels. Arms tuck awkwardly behind heads and flap against thighs; in the end, a crew of sightless, stumbling characters finds redemption in the form of a woman whose graceful arabesques and languid suspensions suggest that she is somehow unmarred by infirmity. As in “Brief Encounters,” the music (Francis Poulenc’s “Concert Champêtre”) remains cheerful, even when the dance is at its darkest.
Taylor remains a master of blending darkness and light, and he’s at his finest in 1991’s “Company B,” which closed out Wednesday night’s program. Set to the popular, catchy World War II-era tunes of the Andrews Sisters, it’s a series of vignettes that juxtapose irrepressibly peppy songs like “Rum and Coca-Cola” with the far more sinister realities of war. While couples whirl downstage, a line of men files across the scrim in silhouette. Theirs is a slow-motion pantomime of a battlefield where they alternate between shooting and dying.
After all these years, Taylor’s still telling truths in his unconventional, unforgettable way.