By Meredith Benjamin
Paul Taylor, hailed as the “last living member of the pantheon that created America’s indigenous art of modern dance,” has been choreographing since 1954. His works, which range from playful to darkly tragic, are, at their core, distinctly American. He has made scenes from American life—from the congregational dynamics of a Southern Pentecostal church to life on the home front during World War II—suitable subjects for dance in a way that few others have managed, avoiding both bland universality and hokey literalness.
There are no pyrotechnics in Taylor’s works, no jaw-dropping leg extensions or dizzying sets of multiple turns. Rather, his basic choreographic vocabulary comes from the pedestrian movements of everyday life: walking, running, jumping, falling, and changing direction. If one of his dancers soars into the air, there’s a good chance they will finish that leap on the floor. The not-quite-pointed feet and relaxed port de bras (positions of the arms) result in an aesthetic that can seem strange at first to eyes used to more highly stylized forms of dance, but this understated style achieves a balance of athleticism and naturalness that allows emotion to come through unalloyed.
Speaking in Tongues, which premiered in 1988, is a dark work, taking as its subject “certain impulsive projection of private religious emotion into the public setting of a communal prayer service.” This is a challenging subject to tackle through movement, not in the least because none of the dancers ever actually speak. The practice of speaking in tongues is rendered instead by bodily convulsions, which interrupt the more conventional social dancing that opens the piece. By making visceral this experience of private emotion, Taylor also points to the underlying sexual dimensions of such expressions, as the projection of these emotions brings bodies into contact with one another.
As “A Man of the Cloth,” the clerical leader of this rural group, Michael Trusnovec was chilling: his stiff jerky movements in stark contrast to the convulsive abandon or impassioned unison of his congregation. His ominous appearances in the doorway of the rustic wood-paneled backdrop often signaled a shift in the groups’ dynamic, as their dancing shifted from undirected social groupings to forcefully angry unison. Taylor mixes hints of narrative and vaguely defined relationships with explicit scenes of unflinching realism, as when we witness “Her Husband” (Sean Mahoney) rape “The Daughter Grown Up” (Michelle Fleet) behind a row of chairs after her pleas for help have been rejected. This is a work about belonging and exclusion, but also about who and what is visible in a world in thrall to a sanctimonious leader.
The exuberant Esplanade is about as far as one can get from the darkness of Speaking in Tongues. First performed in 1975, it has become perhaps Taylor’s most famous work, and with good reason. Set to two Bach concertos, Esplanade is the epitome of Taylor’s revolutionary approach to dance, in which pedestrian movements become the stuff of art.
The curtain rises to reveal nine dancers, clad in cheery shades of orange, pink, and purple, easy smiles on their faces. Their movement consists almost entirely of running, walking, skipping, and jumping, yet despite the limited movement vocabulary, Esplanade is never boring or repetitive, and is frequently surprising in its inventive simplicity. More than once, the audience gasped as women flung themselves into the air and into their partners’ arms or as a dancer stepped on top of, or balanced on, her partner’s supine midsection. Taylor explores the glorious potential inherent in everyday movement, emphasized by the genuine engagement of the dancers with one another. Parisa Khobdeh in particular stood out for her daring and exuberance, as did Michelle Fleet, the piece’s frequent odd woman out, who relishes rather than laments her independence.
The final movement, to Bach’s Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Major, is an exhilarating celebration of the joy of falling and of testing the limits of balance. The pace increases as the dancers enter and exit, throwing themselves at the floor with joyous abandon. Falling, in this dance, is not merely a means of getting to the floor, or a contrast to rising, but is a valid and purposeful movement unto itself.
The company looks magnificent in the David Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center, eating up the full expanse of the stage. However, both pieces were performed to recorded music, which the theatre’s sound system did no favors. The tinny sounds of the score for “Speaking in Tongues” were particularly grating. What a treat it would be to hear the spontaneous energy of the dancers matched by that of the music as interpreted by live musicians! For now though, we’ll have to be content with the glorious opportunity the company’s three-week Lincoln Center season offers us to witness the range and depth of Taylor’s work.
A woman sits or stands in front of us and begins laughing. Or is she crying? When she sighs, ’’s unclear whether she is exhaling from exhaustion or pleasure. Her noises slowly become more specific, the beginnings of words that are never quite formed, that can’t be understood. This scene, with minor variations, is repeated a number of times in choreographer Marjani Forté’s first evening-length work, being Here…, performed at Danspace Project last month. The struggle to be understood, to find one’s voice, and to express oneself is at the heart of this work, which purports to examine “mental illness and addiction in the face of systemic injustice.” The work was informed, in part, by the stories Forté heard from women from the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, where she spent time doing research for the piece.
The cast of six women (Rebecca Bliss, Tendayi Kuumba, Jasmine Hearn, Autumn Scoggan, Alice Sheppard, and Samatha Speis, each powerful and captivating in her own way) included performers of diverse skin color, body types, and abilities. Difference is in many ways at the heart of this piece, and yet Forté refuses to reduce any performer to being defined simply by a particular dissimilarity. I am reminded of a phrase from Audre Lorde’s “biomythography,” Zami, where she writes that “our place was the very house of difference rather than the security of any one difference.” As the women of being Here… come together in various groupings (if only to separate again), Forté asks us to consider the ravages of mental illness and addiction as one of many (non-defining) iterations of difference.
In one section, introduced by the tell-tale ding-dong that signals the closing of subway doors, three different women enter and alternately amuse and frighten the passengers with their antics, ranging from overly brash singing along to an imaginary iPod to brash, expletive-laden rants. Forté asks us to look more closely at these interlopers we so often ignore: at what point do we consider someone “crazy” and thus ignorable? That the two white performers are the passengers, and the interlopers all women of color, forces us to think about the racial dynamics of this question: are certain bodies, dressed in certain ways (here, mismatched oversized layers) more likely to be interpreted as disruptive, as “too much”?
Forte’s choreography makes the connection between body and speech explicit: the women’s muddled enunciations are mirrored by facial and bodily twitches and shaking: the effort to speak is made visible. The role of breath and of the tongue as integral components in speaking are foregrounded as well. At one point, the dancers draw large lateral arcs in the air with their tongues, seeming both to taste the air and to mark the space as their own. Later, another dancer, her back to the audience, voraciously sucks, licks, or kisses her own arms, exaggerating the smacking sounds of her lips.
In a duet with Bliss, Sheppard, in a wheelchair, assumed the active role, supporting and pushing her partner, driving and guiding the action with the same easy sureness she displayed in an earlier solo. Their duet, which began playfully, later turned aggressive, returning to the theme of emotional volatility that characterizes the piece. Having cast off Bliss, Sheppard puts her hand to Scoggan’s mouth, in what is at once a violent silencing and a potentially compassionate act: relieving her of the burden of explaining herself to others.
The powerful penultimate section took on a militant tone, as movements became larger and powerfully aggressive. While the group continued to fragment and re-form, the more frequent collective movement in this section added to its forceful impact. In the final moments, Sheppard and Speis came to face each other, with a mix of compassion and curiosity. Their outstretched fingers almost touched, but then slowly changed direction to point back toward their own chests, in a shared moment of self-realization. This final image illustrates the hopeful potential of living and loving together “in the house of difference.” This dance is not about making oneself intelligible to others, but about the ways that we view and respond to what we consider unintelligible.