Happy Feet

Equal parts ephemeral and fierce, classical dance and its offshoots aren’t a natural go-to for laughs. Ballet and modern dance thrive on expressing the inexpressible, giving shape to the ethereal. Given comedy’s dependence on verbal delivery, and the fact that dance will crumble under the weight of too many words, it doesn’t seem a natural fit.

But only in the most superficial of readings. After all, much of the great comedy is purely physical: the opposite ends of the grace spectrum shown by Keaton and Chaplin, and even the disastrous elegance of a Chevy Chase fall or a John Cleese silly walk. Words would spoil the pleasure of watching these masters at silent work.

My first experience with Paul Taylor’s dance company was devoid of humor, though not some wit. The piece on the program was Speaking in Tongues, and while the solo and duet work were beautiful, the ensemble choreography seemed overly literal, and the piece didn’t hang together. Set in a southern Pentecostal church, it included some wonderful quotes and inversions from Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, including a dour yet fiery preacher, whose solos evoked Bertrand Ross’s without imitating them; unfortunately, I didn’t grab a program so can’t call out the wonderful dancer in the role (but he has red hair). There were other nice parts, and I was impressed by Taylor’s imagination and big dance vocabulary. But 3 calls in 5 minutes from the kids had me worried, and so at intermission I left without regret to discuss homework woes and roommate dilemmas. (The beauty of ushering is that you’ve only paid with time, so taking off early tends to have only pleasant consequences, like not fighting post-show traffic jams.)

I returned to usher the family performance, charging my way through Michigan football traffic, an exercise only for the stout-hearted, and expecting nothing. 10 minutes into Also Ran, a vaudeville pastiche that had been fairly amusing, magic occurred.

With their unsmiling faces that often look as if they’re experiencing some sort of orgasmic epiphany, dancers should be easy to parody – and yet, no one can do it right except dancers. (The SNL “Bad Ballet”  sequence never lives up to its true promise.) Out came a dying swan in full tutu, stuttering away on loud toe shoes, her sagging knees giving away her utter faith in the shoes doing all the work. She was surrounded by 3 barefoot dancers covered in black mesh veils, who immediately projected that they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, but by damn, they were going to Make Art.

The swan would start off sort of gracefully moving her arms in that ballet-swanny way, but then would quickly lose control, her arms flapping faster and bigger, her shoes clattering. On the verge of a complete loss of control, she would then sink to the floor, foot flexed until she remembered to point it, and would finally just flop over on her side from the effort. At one point, her tinsel tiara got stuck on one of the corps members tights, and an absolutely marvelous and doomed exchange attempt began as she tried to retrieve the crown, the stickee tried to get it back to her, and then they finally resigned themselves to pretending that the crown wasn’t hanging off the dancer’s leg as they galumphed their way to the finale.

This was followed by a fantastically bad tarantella, in which a wild-eyed woman pounded a tambourine on her hip, her torso, her fellow dancers in a glorious display of Dancerly Passion that would get huge marks from the So You Think You Can Dance  Panel of Experts. There was a clumsy apache nearly ending in injury, a competitive waltz that called to mind Kate Gosselin’s antics except that it was delightful to watch, and a necessary coda where the stage sweeper executes a beautiful, fluid solo with his broom after all the other dancers have cleared out. The entire piece was as wonderful as Jerome Robbin’s The Concert, or pretty much anything by the Ballet Trocakdero de Monte Carlo.

Certainly it put me in a great mood for the second offering, Taylor’s version of The Rite of Spring. I’ve seen Rite a half dozen times, most recently in Marie Chouinard’s half-naked version, which, if memory serves, at the very least quotes from this one. I could find out more about Taylor’s own influences on this ballet via the peerless Laura Jacobs, who covers both Taylor and Rite in her wonderful book, Landscape with Moving Figures. But I wanted to write my own thoughts first, because, for one thing, I don’t want to be overly influenced, but mainly because once Laura writes about something, you feel like a dope saying anything more, she’s expressed it so perfectly. Anyway, here goes.

Taylor uses a two-piano rather than orchestral arrangement, and this most angular score sounded completely new; it makes sense that a pair of giant percussion instruments would make the most of the music’s harsh beauty. The two-dimensional, Grecian urn-inspired figures that seem a natural for this ballet took on added punch; both music and movement seemed die-cut, forged by impersonal machines.

Taylor gives the piece an urban setting that evokes 20s gangsters, maybe in Paris (in a nice call-out to the fabled premiere), maybe in Tokyo. But the dance never tries to go beyond a shadow of narrative or character outline; it’s pure expression of music projected on bodies. Perhaps most exciting was that it was performed not by the company, but by UM dance students, who literally leapt at the rigorous, demanding work . Probably more than any other art, dance is singularly unrewarding; even a gig in a big company pays lousy, and there is certainty of pain and a short and hazardous career. It’s thrilling to see that that’s not stopping kids who, as Gene Kelly sings, gotta dance.

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