Sunday, March 20, 2011

Maybe the Emperor needs new clothes

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performed at Georgia State’s Rialto Center for the Arts ( This was my first visit to the Rialto, which is an old movie house that has been converted to a multi-purpose performing arts center.  It is not a restoration, but rather a rebuilding of this century building.  The lobby is rather small and unremarkable.  The auditorium has good sight lines, but retains its movie theater “bones.”

The evening began with an overly long award presentation.  Please excuse my poor reportage on the recipients but I was there for the performance!

I really like contemporary dance and was looking forward to this performance.  The program began with Taylor’s “Company B”, built around the music of the Andrews Sisters, whose songs according to the program, “…express typical sentiments of Americans during World War II.”  I know that this is a revered piece but I had a difficult time with it.  Its message is presented with great subtlety and in some ways; it struck me as too subtle.  If I had not known what to expect, I suspect I might have missed it.   I am probably just too concrete, but when ambiguous messages in art must rely on my own projections for me to get the meaning, then it’s bound to be hit or miss.  I also do not have a great affinity for the popular music of the thirties and forties, just as I suspect that people born in the sixties might have little affinity for the music of the forties and fifties.  My only connection to the Andrews sisters is by way of watching a few black and white movies in which they sang.

I had similar problems with the second piece, titled “Phantasmagoria,” which is danced to music of the Renaissance written by anonymous composers.  As best I could tell, the piece is a series of tableaux that have a dream-like feel.   It included a nun whose eroticism got the best of her, an Irish tap dancer and a skid row fellow who is intoxicated.  The piece has numerous sight gags, although getting laughs from the bad behavior of a “drunk” is just too easy- much like the laughs that resulted from each of Archie Bunker’s toilet flushes. 

The final work was titled “Brandenburgs” with music by J. S. Bach.  This piece was the highlight of the program for me. It did not have a story that I had to divine and the choreography was abstract for abstraction sake.   It was music translated to physicality, without having an accompanying story.  It was as if the music was analyzed through a digital process to show the pitch, rhythm, and volume of the composition.  The dancers were being the equivalent of the digital display.  I have tended toward the Stravinskian viewpoint that music is what it is, and that it does not inherently express emotion, story, etc.  In “Brandenburgs,” Taylor gives us a physical representation of music, devoid of our desires to make it be emotional, psychological, etc.   For me, this is a great strength of contemporary dance.  It isn’t as though dance should not express some meaning that the choreographer extracts from the music based on their own psychological projections.  But it seems like such a conceit to me to expect me to figure that out their psychological state in order to understand the piece.  “Brandenburgs” avoids this and deals with the music simply as music.  To me, it was the best piece of the evening.  

The Paul Taylor dancers were technically skilled and performed admirably.  They were wonderful to watch.
All of the music for the performance was recorded.  Either the source material was poorly compiled or the sound system at the Rialto is second rate.  But poor reproduction of music really inhibits my enjoyment of that music.  Also, the program included two long intermissions.  I thought that the breaks lasted longer than the pieces.  I am not sure why there had to be two breaks.  There were no elaborate costume or scenery changes and I am all for some rest for the dancers.  But the intermissions “broke the spell” and made the evening seem drawn out. 

Finally, the audience was noisy.  There was chatter all around me.  In the rear of the auditorium is an overhang and whispers in the last row seemed to be amplified by it, and the person next to me began to sing one of the Andrews Sisters songs.  

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