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.
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.
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.