Paul Taylor served the first generation of modern dance pioneers as a performer, then helped create and redefine the second as a choreographer.
Other societies would long ago have named him a Living National Treasure. Here, at 83, he continues to assert his power to delight, amuse and possibly even anger audiences with programs such as the varied and challenging one his company danced on Friday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
In the first of three performances, his 16-member ensemble offered a familiar Taylor parley: something bright and beautiful ("Airs," from 1978), something dark and ugly ("Banquet of Vultures" from 2005), something wildly comic yet implicitly pointed ("Gossamer Gallants" from 2011).
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A celebration of gorgeous bodies under dappled light, "Airs" was once controversial in the locked-down modern dance subculture for its breezy contemporary lyricism and use of pre-Romantic music: mostly overtures and concerti by Handel. But with an extra woman in the cast, there's implicit heartbreak in the dancers pairing off at the end.
On Friday, Laura Halzack made you feel her isolation, while the rewards of togetherness were physicalized in a playful duet for Jamie Rae Walker and Robert Kleinendorst and a sweetly buoyant one for Eran Bugge and Michael Trusnovec. Jennifer Tipton's lighting gilded the dancers just as the recorded Handel excerpts ennobled them.
Set to music by Morton Feldman, "Banquet of Vultures" proved deliberately harsh and pitiless: bold movement theater in which people ran desperately and hopelessly, leaders emerged to mobilize and then destroy their followers, and flashes of individual heroism amounted to nothing in the general devastation.
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Trusnovec and Kleinendorst played the two figures of immense destructive power who dominated the piece and gave it its malignant energy. For each, Taylor fashioned a fragmented, convulsive, punishing movement style as if their very bodies were rebelling against them.
Walker appeared as the final individual victim, on a fearful, fatal search. Tipton aimed for the edge of night occasionally accented (or relieved) by hand-held light sources.
Any war that terrorized a civilian population might have inspired the work nine years ago, and there are more than ever now. You might argue that a dance without steps misuses the company's capabilities — but also accept that any art ought to express deeper priorities than merely showcasing technique.
In "Gossamer Gallants," the intricate filigree in music by Smetana supplied Taylor with the impetus for quivery insectile movement. Against a Santo Loquasto backdrop that seemed to be a pinwheel of trees and towers, the men played brainless bug-jocks, rough-housing and cartwheeling in their winged black and blue uniforms. Meanwhile, the predatory bug-women wore lime green, striking showgirl poses (with periodic burlesque bumps) when not flexing their muscles.
Loquasto's costumes provided half the fun. The other half: watching the men's dopey ardor change to fear as this mating dance turned into a pursue-and-destroy ritual. Pure fun? A satire on feminist overkill? Taylor's revenge on every childhood dance recital in which some moppet impersonated a cutesie-poo butterfly? You decide.
In any case, "Gossamer Gallants" might be seen as a fantasy reduction/refraction of the action in "Banquet of Vultures": the same voracious leaders, the same pileup of bodies at the end.
Men waged war in "Vultures." Women waged sex in "Gallants." Is the outcome any prettier when the victims sport wings and antennae? Again, you decide.