by Byron Woods
"I’ve seen tattoos with more character development than much of Mr. Taylor’s choreography in his new work last Saturday night."
Our critic tags Taylor with "characterization by costume" in a review that asks, "When the costume designer and musicians do most of the heavy lifting, what’s left for the choreographer?" Read the screed — and respond, in Comments.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
De Sueños (Of Dreams)
American Dance Festival
The Sleep of Reason
When the costume designer and musicians do most of the heavy lifting, what’s left for the choreographer?
by Byron Woods
In the theater it’s sometimes called “characterization by costume.” It is anything but a professional compliment. The term describes a show in which a performer’s clothes are actually giving us more information about the character they’re playing than their acting is — their speech, stage presence and economies of movement and gesture.
Which brings us to De Sueños (Of Dreams), the Paul Taylor world premiere last weekend at the American Dance Festival. To be fair, let’s fully stipulate to several striking images on the Page Auditorium stage, which we’ll unpack in a moment. We’ll also readily admit to the atmospheric — and occasionally chaotic and foreboding — soundtrack: Kronos Quartet’s recordings of contemporary Mexican composers with field recordings of boisterous city street life and humbler religious ceremonies irregularly superimposed on them.
With that said, say this: I’ve seen tattoos with more character development than much of Mr. Taylor’s choreography in his new work last Saturday night.
Actually, I intend the comparison between the two to go a bit more than skin deep. Both skin art and choreography tend to deal with superimposing abstract or iconic images upon the human form. In both, the body is simultaneously the canvas or the sculptor’s clay and the frame. And in both art forms, when imagery is iconic, shortcuts are inevitably being taken.
For the needle artist needn’t write 800 words on her subject’s spiritual beliefs on her back — not when the face of a man with flowing beard and peaceful eyes above a thin ribbon banner with the word “Jesus” does the trick. Even if the artistan who’s inked a strictly old-school flaming ace of spades atop a pair of dice with snake-eyes showing has wowed us with technique, we still know he didn’t create the concept himself. Sure, he’s reiterated a trope in mid-century popular culture. He also probably hasn’t added much to what we know about chance, or a possibly dangerous-hearted love affair with risk.
In both of these hypotheticals — and in Taylor’s De Sueños — an artist is riffing on beliefs or memes already in progress, utilizing previously established sets of symbols. Let’s also say that, on one level at least, all three of them are coasting — unless, that is, their work advances our understanding or appreciation of their subjects.
It’s a problem some say is pervasive in Southern literature, and a compelling argument for the premise that the genre’s work may be judged most accurately at some distance from its epicenter. How much of a Southern novel actually exists on page — and how much of it exists only in the vivid memories of a Southern reader? It’s hard to say from the inside. Again, shortcuts are being taken — shortcuts that may only be apparent to those who don’t come with all of the appropriate cultural markers conveniently pre-loaded.
Should we praise Santo Loquasto’s backdrop (when, that is, it finally emerges from behind a shimmery blue curtain seemingly taken from a Vegas nightclub)? Yes. Its suggestion of an elaborate woodcut print, depicting a hilly countryside actually resting on a pile of skulls remarks on our understanding of how life is built on death.
The artistry of his costuming is beyond question as well. His threads effectively convey a character like Richard Chen See’s, who is always associated with death in this piece: a pale, gaunt, barefoot man wearing a bowler, dark glasses and a black three-piece suit, holding a rose-colored skull.
Similarly, Laura Halzack’s form-fitting costume of gold is matched by a radiant golden headpiece. Given the music which accompanies her solo, Osvaldo Golijov’s atmospheric K'in Sventa Ch'ul Me'tik Kwadulupe (Festival for the Holy Mother of Guadalupe), she is no doubt meant to suggest that religious figure, though the garb also suggests one of several Indian deities.
But when you take the costumes and the music away, what is left here? What does it add up to?
Yes, it is a striking gesture when Chen See’s character offers the skull to various characters on stage — who then lick the top of it like an oversized ice-cream cone. In a different scene, a suitor treats a smaller skull as if it were a bouquet, before offering it to his beloved — who gives it another lick — before Michael Trusnovec’s antic, arcing solo, partially nude, with a white, bone-like rack of antlers atop his head.
These moments add something more to our thoughts on life, death, illusion and what lies underneath. But too much of Taylor’s choreography doesn’t effectively define this work’s characters, situation or world in ways we don’t already know.
We have seen persuasive dream worlds at ADF, both this summer and in past seasons. Last month, Inbal Pinto’s Rushes joined Shen Wei’s Near the Terrace and Folding in conveying other places inhabited by characters as vivid as the costumes they wore, if not more so. They clearly obeyed the altered causal logic of those worlds.
We also have seen Taylor’s own characters draw, both memorably and with authority, on other cultural traditions in works like his Piazzolla Caldera.
Already this summer, choreographers’ characters and dancers have repeatedly been reduced to skin depth, by the clothes or accessories they were — or weren’t — wearing at the time. We see it happening again in De Sueños.
There is a tableau toward the end, in which Chen See and Halzack’s characters preside over the far left and right corners of the stage. Two couples break apart for the men to kneel facing Chen See, while the women do the same in the direction of Halzack.
The image would make a lovely, dark tattoo. Unfortunately, given the lack of overall coherence or depth in a work where appearances count the most, that’s about all it makes at present.