Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance: “Death and the Damsel” and “Sea Lark”
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, New York, March 10-29, 2015
Paul Taylor’s “Death and the Damsel,” one of two premieres during his season at Lincoln Center has been labeled by many critics as a piece about sex-trafficking. There’s one scene in particular in which the ingénue (Jamie Rae Walker) is passed between the hands of leather-wearing men, all of them forcing her into the same compromising position. Each throws her over his shoulder before straddling her to the ground and parting her legs in order to look at the crotch between. There’s no touching involved, but this restraint almost makes it seem even more unfeeling and inhumane. I’ve never seen such an explicit portrayal of the violence intrinsic to the male gaze onstage.
The gang rape takes place halfway through “Death.” It starts in the “damsel’s” bedroom, and first shows her waking from what looks like a good night’s rest. She waltzes about in a pink night gown; this is Taylor’s choreography at its most balletic. A few details in the otherwise cheerful scene make us aware that something bad is going to happen, and soon. For one, in Bohuslav Martinu’s Sonata No. 2., the cello feels as if it’s a bird caught in the cage of the piano. Then there’s the lurid backdrop, which makes it look as if the outside slums have crept in, skyscrapers jutting through the ceiling at odd angles. Even before the horror starts, it can be found in these innermost private chambers; you can’t escape it.
The “damsel” begins to sense that something is amiss, too, and climbs back into bed, covering her head with a pillow. What happens next doesn’t accord itself with the tenets of realism; it seems to unfold in a dream. The bedroom fills with men and women in dominatrix gear, their bellies slinking on the ground. Their orgies are clearly of the gutter, and the way they play into the archetype of Evil seems a shade melodramatic. One of the men notices Walker and removes her protective pillow; the nightmare turns real. Taylor has made works about the sex-obsessed before. “Dream Girls” (2003) shows women with padded breasts and rears chasing and eventually smothering their helpless suitors. It’s a comedy, but it leaves you not wanting to touch anyone for days afterwards. Yet somehow I don’t think that “Death” is just about sex-trafficking. There’s another layer to it. The total lack of agency displayed by Walker in the scene described above, the garish stereotypes, and the Cubist-inspired backdrops which blur the boundary between outside in—all these suggest a preoccupation with subjective experience rather than strictly objective reality.
Taylor frequently makes literary references with his epigrams noted in the program, which hail from the likes of the Bible, Spinoza, and Shakespeare. Their words may or may not help to explain the intention behind his work. In the case of “Death,” we’re given something from James Thomson: “The City is of Night, perchance of Death.” The poem he’s quoting, The City of Dreadful Night, has a more famous line: “But when a dream night after night is brought / throughout a week . . . can any / discern that dream from real life in aught?” (1.11-14) Thomson asked this partly because he was a raging alcoholic, and wouldn’t get out of bed till the afternoon in order to avoid painful sobriety. Still, his question holds up as an existential one: when are we ever allowed a chance to escape ourselves? As he saw it, solipsism encircled its victim to the point of mental suffocation. To watch “Death and the Damsel” in light of its epigram makes the work more hauntingly ambiguous. She’s going mad; we don’t know whether or not the dominatrix figures are real or imaginary. The way they follow her wherever she goes, each one identical to the next, suggests that they are figments of a paranoid and psychotic mental landscape.
As if alluding to this distinction or the lack thereof, Taylor gave us two endings for the same piece. In the first showing on March 13th, Walker lands back safe in bed, and looks like she’s dreaming sweetly. In the second (I saw this version on March 18th), the sex fiends close in around her until she slumps to the floor. Taylor has taken on all matter of subjects in his works, and many of them involve “painful little scenes,” as Joan Acocella calls the moments in his works when the narrative changes course in tragic and unexpected ways. This time the painful scene is not so little. I’m not sure if I’d want to watch “Death” again, but it’s a nuanced examination of the interplay between psychology and physicality, the way one feeds and reinforces the other.
“Sea Lark,” the other premiere, served as the diametric opposite to “Death,” all fun and games on the beach. When Parisa Khobdeh has a melancholy solo, someone throws her a buoy as if depression can be fixed with rope. The cheerful smiles and brightly colored costumes (the women in polka dots, the men in Navy gear à la On the Town) suggest that these are the shores of another era. “Sea Lark” is not a work of great profundity. But there are some very charming moments throughout, as when Sean Mahoney convincingly “swims” under the waves, or the mooring of a boat allows a group to start dancing in the middle of the ocean. Alex Katz’s crisply defined backdrops of yellow, blue and white accentuate the dancers’ profiles as they look out to the horizon.
Taylor has long derided “the empty-headedness of surface patterns,” the idea that dance can present an “abstract humanity.” In these two premieres, the dancing is almost overshadowed by humanistic drama; in both cases the choreography was a little lost in the story being told. Then again, Taylor wasn’t making headlines as much with his premieres as he was with the mixing of his bills. This season marked the debut of “Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance,” and Taylor brought in Shen Wei Dance Arts as well as the Limón Dance Company alongside his own. In the program we’re told that he is now trying to build “an institutional home for the great works of modern dance past, present, and future.” An ambitious goal for an individual past his eighty-fourth birthday. At times in these “ham and eggs” programs as they’re called, the curation feels a little spotty; not everything mixes well. But Taylor doesn’t deserve to be slammed for what he is trying to do, as he has been in the press. Modern dance could use another home. As it stands now we are in danger of losing much of it.
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