It's been easy getting used to having the Paul Taylor Company around. For each of the past five years, the group has presented three different programs of new and repertory works, courtesy of San Francisco Performances. Even taking into account the occasional repeat, this amounts to close to 50 pieces of choreography, an extraordinary overview of the artistic output of one of modern dance's giants.
But San Francisco Performances can no longer afford to host the company on such a regular basis. Word has it a hoped-for increase in subscriptions the lifeblood of every nonprofit arts organization has not materialized. One reason may be that Taylor, who is unique in having performed with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and had a solo choreographed for him by George Balanchine, is such a well-known entity. Audiences may feel the 76-year-old choreographer has nothing new to offer them. Yet there is such pleasure in discovering the new in the familiar and the familiar in the new.
The first of this season's programs beautifully illustrated what Taylor choreographs so brilliantly: humorous pieces, some with bite; wistful celebrations of idealized communities; and fierce, almost apocalyptic rages. These dark pieces provide no relief Taylor doesn't seem to believe in catharsis.
The new Lines of Loss is among his darkest. Its distillation of grief weighs heavily. In the past few years Taylor has homed in on the communal impact of violence. Here he focused on the individual. The walking patterns for the ensemble were austere and stripped-down: ceremonial like a procession, casual like a friendly stroll, and enfolding in a hand-holding chain. Turbulent solos and duets fatally imploded this sense of order: Lisa Viola descended into ground-brushing back bends as if something horrendous were descending on her; later, Annmaria Mazzini appeared crushed by the same force. Looking up, a frantic Robert Kleinendorf acted as if he'd been hit in the chest, after which his writhing body was dragged away. An innocent shove made claw-bearing enemies of Richard Chen See and James Samson. A weighted-down Michael Trusnovec crumbled from full manhood into a doddering old man. The closest thing to comfort was a feeble kiss blown across the stage after Viola and Trusnovec vainly tried to bridge the distance between their intertwining bodies.
Taylor's 1962 Piece Period, only recently revived, represented a young choreographer's effort at spoofing the establishment. Fun to watch, it was very much of its time. Taylor took on not only theatrical dance's formal conventions both Graham's and Balanchine's but also the period's fascination with the bobbing beats of baroque music. Even though Taylor never joined the Judson Group's embrace of the ordinary, lurking in the background of this work is a similar desire to sweep away the constraints of artifice. Viola, the company's supreme comedian, bounced about in a minitutu, sternly watched from behind fans by mantilla-clad matrons. A bewigged Kleinendorf pranced as Papa Haydn. Julie Tice's movements with empty pots were little digs at Taylor's Judson colleagues. Chen See, as the court jester of this motley troupe, performed his leaps as if pressed from a stencil.
Later, of course, Taylor embraced baroque music with a passion, creating works to strains of William Boyce (Arden Court), Johann Sebastian Bach (Esplanade), and George Frideric Handel (Aureole, Airs). The 1972 Airs looked as infectiously joyous as ever. Newcomer Laura Halzack's poignant vulnerability and the lushly luminous Parisa Khobdeh contributed their shine to this shimmering jewel. As for the Paul Taylor Company, it will return to San Francisco Performances in 2009, in a format yet to be determined.