What's So Funny?





Since he will have the last word, we might as well give Paul Taylor the first word, too.


“All comedy that is really successful,” said the great choreographer in a British TV interview, “is based on a very serious condition in the state of humanity.”


Which may explain why Taylor can look back on a half century of seeing the world from the vantage point of a bemused visitor from a parallel universe. It explains, too, how Taylor, as he enters his ninth decade, can turn out unerring satiric gems, like Also Playing, which will receive its New York premiere during the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s home season at New York City Center (February 24 through March 14).


Not that Taylor is the jester of the dance world (although he dressed like a jester in his early Piece Period). In the 56 years of his company’s existence, he has conjured masterworks from pedestrian movement (Esplanade). He has tested the limits of his dancers’ techniques in muscular romps like Mercuric Tidings and Arden Court. And he has often sojourned in the dark recesses of the human heart in such dances as Banquet of Vultures and the terrifying Last Look, in which we mortals seem unable to resist our capacity to destroy ourselves.


Yet, what has made Taylor such an enduring cultural force is his genius for encompassing extreme moods. The ugly and the droll coexist in his works, and no dancemaker has ever exhibited such a wide range of tonal nuance.


Taylor’s sense of humor can be both wonderfully childlike and sophisticated. His very first dance in the 1950s, Jack and the Beanstalk, revealed a fondness for fractured fairy tales and revisionist narrative that has never deserted him. Flash forward almost 30 years and Taylor is at it again in his version of Snow White. The humor derives from our familiarity with the story in both its printed and cinematic incarnations—and thus, our complicity.  The seven dwarfs are reduced to five (the company’s entire male complement) and billed in the program as “some dwarfs.” They’re all tall guys, so they perform the entire dance on their haunches. The iconic apple becomes “a bad apple,” a dancer in flowing red whose arm is chomped upon by the princess. And, in Taylor’s master stroke, the evil queen and the prince are danced by the same (male) performer, who seems more concerned about checking his profile in a mirror than the fate of the heroine.


Great comedy is always moral, and there’s a lesson here about narcissism and the structure of myth. That Taylor skewers convention with a needle rather than a hammer is a key to his brilliance. Once a comic trajectory is launched, he allows the logic to run its course unimpeded. Consider Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Here, Taylor cuts between a ballet rehearsal led by a domineering ballet mistress and a modern private eye story about a kidnapped baby. You can see the ending coming, yet when the climax, an infanticide, arrives, it is predestined, horrifying, and, because it is so inevitable, truly funny.


Taylor’s wit inclines to the saturnine. He will present you with what you think is a lighthearted romp and then summon a serious element. Your laughter congeals in your throat. Taylor reminds you that the fluffy old Andrews Sisters recordings accompanying Company B and the popular dances of the 1940s that delight audiences were born out of the desperation of World War II. Behind these party people you see the silhouettes of men dying in battle and daring to love each other, and they complicate our responses. Company B is anything but a wallow in nostalgia.


Yet nostalgia and our feelings about the conventions of theatrical and social dances of the past figure substantially in Taylor’s works. In Piece Period, his dancers (the women garbed in stiff Elizabethan finery) cavort in an arch, even mincing approximation of Renaissance dance. In the subversive and often zany Offenbach Overtures, the Romantic tunes envelop you in an aura of enchantment. But gradually, the grisettes fake intoxication a bit too realistically. Soon, too, a pair of cavaliers provoke a duel. Meanwhile, as they go at it, their seconds, who are supposed to maintain decorum, eye each other with increasing infatuation and fall into each other’s arms. So much for the 19th-century code of chivalry.


Sometimes, Taylor sets you up to laugh and then pulls the rug out from under you. My favorite example of this is A Field of Grass. At the beginning, a dancer sits cross-legged on the stage, smoking a joint. Feeling a bit superior, we all smile at this evocation of the druggy, bell-bottomed 1960s, with its Harry Nilsson songs. It all seems so dated. Yet, when the entire cast eases into unisons, accompanied by Nilsson’s “Spaceman,” you succumb to the blissful mood that many of us felt in that era, a mood Taylor so adeptly conjures.


Taylor derives his most winning comic effects from his responses to music. Take Lost, Found and Lost. We don’t know what came first. Was it the music, Donald York’s clever simulation of “wallpaper music”? Or was it the devastating movement—the dancers in trendy get-ups, posturing like fashion models, all bathed in Jennifer Tipton’s blinding studio lighting? Does it matter? The piece is a treasure.


In Public Domain, which has returned to the repertory after many years, Taylor even skewers the conventional relationship that choreographers maintain with music. This is an early (1968) dance, yet, even then, Taylor sent up dancemakers who plunder the world’s classics and then fail, miserably, to engage with them. It’s a delectable parody, a great, sophisticated joke. John Herbert McDowell’s collage score raids Beethoven, Wagner, Sibelius, Ponchielli, Mahler, Handel, an Oscar Wilde play, a routine by W.C. Fields, and heaven knows what else. To all of this sonic input, the dancers, clad in bubble-gum–hued unitards, remain oblivious, as they dutifully rearrange themselves in abstract patterns. Only at the end do the repeated chords at the conclusion of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony (looped) summon them from their reverie, as they hastily realign themselves, racing to the finish line with the music.


One of the things about Taylor that I find fascinating is how the lighthearted and serious pieces seem to have been made in pairs; we might conclude that in some cases they were even created simultaneously. The most dramatic example was the serenely romantic Roses, an antidote to the venomous Last Look. The barbershop-quartet trifle, Dream Girls, followed hard on the wrenching, heroic Promethean Fire. Go back a couple of decades to the sappy Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala, which was a prologue to the austere Musical Offering. Taylor’s sensibility seems to require that constant readjustment between extremes; those of us in thrall to his artistry happily yield to that process.


As he nears 80, Taylor’s satiric targets have become more benign. I don’t expect to see anything like the bouncing Klansmen who were such a baleful presence in Oh, You Kid! I don’t think we will again encounter the cultural arrogance of the pilgrims in From Sea to Shining Sea.
 The new Also Playing is a gentle but loving spoof of dance theater itself. The takeoffs on Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, and all manner of ballet exotica are part of a tribute to the vaudeville era, in which entertainment came in many guises. There’s a kind of narrative thread running through the piece, but you won’t find it revealed here. As Taylor says, “It’s the surprise element, or the shock element (if you’re really doing it right), that will make people laugh—nervously, or not.”


Make ‘em laugh


How do Taylor’s dancers aim to strike the funny bone? Abigail Rasminsky talked to two of PTDC’s funniest dancers to find out how they approach those ticklers.

Robert Kleinendorst Paul is a big believer in letting the movement get the laugh. His thing is to play it seriously. I try to climb into the character and make him three-dimensional in my brain, so I can say, “Would he do this, and why?” Paul will show something and he’ll say, “No, do it like this,” and it’ll be completely brilliant and it’s hard to reproduce it exactly the way he did it. He performs these very subtle and simple things that are hilarious. When you can copy him, it really ends up being a great moment. He doesn’t like us mugging or hamming it up. It’s easy to tip the scales from funny to outlandish, but it gets boring and it’s not funny anymore. The hardest thing to do is to keep it simple. You have to have faith in what Paul’s giving you.


Parisa Khobdeh Without a doubt, the humor is in the choreography. It’s not something we put on. Paul has a pure talent for timing, for surprising you and the audience. It’s never the same from performance to performance. I have to leave myself open to the game, because anything can happen—costumes, slip spots on the floor, a different audience. Some things surprise me as a dancer, and I just stick to who I am, where I am, and the relationship I have to people around me. As long as I stay true to those elements, the character reacts naturally in live performance. When I got Lisa Viola’s part in Offenbach Overtures, it was daunting, so I enrolled in comedy improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. That helped me gain confidence to just be, to trust Paul, to be available, and to play the game.



Pictured: Parisa Khobdeh, left, with Michelle Fleet in Offenbach Overtures. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy PTDC


Allan Ulrich is a DM Senior Advising Editor and the San Francisco Chronicle dance correspondent.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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