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The Dynamic Dance Duo of Paul Taylor and Eric Stern

By Karen Anne Webb
Dance Review:
Paul Taylor Dance Company / Sternworks

Last October, I got to write about two choreographers — Bebe Miller and Alwin Nikolais — who worked with an aesthetic that included complete integration of dance with all elements of theatre.
In November, the performances of both the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Erik Stern's new Sternworks (both running the weekend of November 3) allow me to reflect on what I'll call the multi-aesthete: the artist who can work with many different aesthetics and produce intelligently in all of them. He may, as the Taylor three-bill evening demonstrated, be influenced by trends, but he does not allow them to dictate to him.

Stern's work, "Demolition Derby: When a Mind Loses its License to Drive" is a long-format work, his first excursion with his new company. It deals with Alzheimer's Disease and how we react (or choose not to react) to its presence as victims, family, caregivers. Stern has long worked with dance-theatre elements like props, multi-media, and spoken text, but here he and his collaborators put it all together in some thrilling new ways. Favorite image: a brain scan in full color (I think it was a PET) dissolving into an image of a shower drain. I think this must be what Alzheimer's feels like to the person experiencing it. When my "adopted grandma" was diagnosed, I definitely got a sense of those memories going down the drain.

Stern's text draws parallels between the effects of Alzheimer's on the family experiencing it and the recovery of a car on its last legs (wheels?) for use in the demolition derby of the title. The victim (Stern's persona's aging mother) is entering the twilight of her life; the car's useful life is behind it except for use as salvage material to be thrust into the derby arena. As a car on the derby track gets pounded by its own kind, so the mom gets pounded by all that was previously friendly and familiar. Particularly effective was a scene in which an old friend—her comfy chair—suddenly animates into the stuff of which a child's nightmares are made.
The spoken text shows scenes familiar to anyone who has worked with family's in crisis. Stern's character has a great soliloquy and movement section in which he blithely denies he's experiencing any stress at all while his body gets pummeled by invisible forces. You can almost hear the ulcers starting to develop from swallowed emotion. Sara Christensen, whom I've only known as a dancer, delivered a great dramatic performance as a counselor. As in Stern's case, her words and affect don't quite match. This is calm and cheerfulness that serve only as a bastion against the caregiver actually hearing anything the family has to say, a layer of insulation against her truly feeling anyone's pain.

The movement in the piece is multi-layered. At some points, dancers literally fly through the air with abandon only to crash land on rubber mattresses. Other sections are fluid, lyrical, and introspective. Elizabeth Cranney, an import from Logan, gives an affecting performance as the mother both in her solo work and in her work with Stern. Her dancing has everything one could ask: beautiful clean technique, a doe-like maturity, and stunning dramatic depth. Watching her was a little like seeing Maggie Wright reincarnated a bit taller and doing modern dance rather than ballet. Her performance embodies the entire work: full of choice meat, cooked to a turn.

The Taylor company's triple bill likewise drew from a number of aesthetics. Some choreographers are like composers whose works are always recognizable: Vaughan Williams' use of strings, Copland's chord structures, Tchaikovsky's heavily embellished endings. Taylor has his genres but typically finds something new to do with them each time he trots them out.

"Airs," one of his barefoot ballets so balletic that even ABT picked it up, was just beautiful. His modern dance aesthetic shows through in the interplay among the dancers. The six nominal corps members (really, it's an ensemble piece) and soloist (Laura Halzack, another performer whose strength matches her depth) get mixed and matched a lot rather than remaining, say, three side couples with a soloist center stage. The men's technique looked far sharper than when the company performed "Arden Court," another barefoot ballet, on its anniversary tour last year.

Taylor's humor—silly, quirky, even a little sly—takes center stage with "Book of Beasts." This piece is a bit like a medieval tableau (say, one of those fenced-in unicorn tapestries) come to life and delivered into the hands of the Monty Python troupe. Even Terry Gilliam's animated monsters seem to be represented. Yet against the milieu of uproarious humor, Taylor placed some tour de force performances for his men, especially Orion Duckstein and Robert Kleinendorst. It's a juxtaposition that makes the chasing down of mythical beasts and the screwball look at sacrifice work even better. The comedic timing and the fact that Taylor chose a panoply of classical music against which to set this romp made for a satisfying piece.

I'm still considering the post-modernist influenced "Syzygy." This is Taylor dabbling in a new idiom but not enslaved to it. The large-ensemble piece has structure and clever movement. This is a departure from Taylor's often classically influenced movement. Arms are freer, if still shaped in interesting ways. In fact, the actual shapes of bodies and limbs is one of the strongest elements of the piece.

The piece begins and ends centered around Lisa Viola, who seems intended as a still point amidst chaos. And a lot of the ensemble work borders on the frenetic. The one thing that didn't quite work for me is that sense of the unrelenting frenetic. The energy itself was not bothersome, but with the sense of initially focusing then closing around Viola's weighted center, the overall conception seemed a little blurry for Taylor, from whom I would have expected to see more of a journey there and back again.



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