Taylor dancers interpret Great Depression

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  March 5, 2002 at 3:45 PM
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NEW YORK, March 5 (UPI) -- The Paul Taylor Dance Company has taken on a new dance subject, the Great Depression of the 1930s, performing to Tin Pan Alley songs that mirror the both the grim reality and the sardonic humor of the era in a work titled "Black Tuesday."

This provocative dance number is having its New York premiere as part of the 47-year-old company's annual visit to the City Center that features a rich variety of Paul Taylor's works and will run through March 10.

The 71-year-old choreographer grew up during the Depression years and has been able to endow his latest creative effort with unblinking authenticity, including a portrayal of an unemployed World War I veteran begging for a handout.

"I don't remember much about the Depression itself, but they were still jitterbugging when I was in high school, so I remember that, and then there were the songs," Taylor recalled in an interview. "The whole thing comes out of the songs."

"Black Tuesday" has two settings -- projections of an elevated subway stop in Chicago's loop district and a dark stretch of illuminated skyscrapers along New York's Park Avenue -- and a cast of 13 taking the roles that include street bums, pimps and prostitutes that give the work a very Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill feeling.

It opens with "Underneath the Arches," an ensemble number starring Michael Trusnovec and Robert Kleinendorst in soft-shoe routines that give a new meaning to the lighthearted song.

The arches involved here are the supports of the elevated subway beneath which unemployed homeless men have camped out. The attempt of this ragtag lot, dressed in castoffs ranging from a tailcoat to a sailor's blouse, to enjoy a dance with passing street girls in faded flapper finery would be pathetic if it were not a reflection of their determination not to give up on life.

The next episode, danced to "There's No Depression in Love," shows a line of embracing couples headed by Maureen Mansfield and Richard Chen See whose gaiety seems somewhat forced as they sway to lyrics such as "Times are bad but it doesn't matter. ... When the moon is up above, there's no unemployment," obviously a romantic non-sequitur.

Kristi Egtvedt and Takehiro Ueyama take forced gaiety one degree further in their attempt to imitate the swells as they do a modified cakewalk down Park Avenue to the strains of "Slummin' on Park Avenue," a song suited to Judy Garland-style mimicry. It is in sharp contrast to "Sittin' on a Rubbish Can," a number starring Silvia Nevjinsky as a jilted, pregnant woman.

This may be the first modern dance or ballet number ever to feature pregnancy, but Nevjinsky makes it a dance celebrating her angry defiance of fate that has left her alone with her problems in the midst of amorous couples. Nevjinsky's strong dance statement lets the audience know that the Great Depression is not going to depress her.

"Are You Making Any Money?" a song that takes its title from an oft-asked question of the era, is given a twist by having a pimp as the asker as he approaches each of his three "girls" for their earnings. Orion Duckstein is wonderful as the plaid-suited, cigar-chomping pimp who tweaks his girls into line with a little brutality, and Annmaria Mazzini, Amy Young, and Julie Tice are unexpectedly funny as the flighty trio who support his dandyish lifestyle.

Mazzini returns to the spotlight in "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," dancing the role of a young woman who is brutalized and then gang raped by a group of street men. Her situation appears to be desperate, but she is rescued by a male passerby who puts her arm through his and walks her off the stage with a semblance of self-respect and purpose.

Another of the company's top dancers, Lisa Viola, a small, bouncy woman with a particularly pliant body and face, takes the lead in "I Went Hunting and the Big Bad Wolf Was Dead." She dances with all the flippant bravura of a Dead-end Kid, pointing a finger like a gun and shooting the other dancers when the song reaches its climax with the words, "Tra, la, la, la, la. I won't worry anymore. No more wolf at anyone's door."

The final episode is he most heartfelt. Patrick Corbin, a dancer of formidable technique, performs as a war hero garbed in remnants of his uniform to the music of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" as sung by a youthful Bing Crosby. As the curtain falls, the outstretched palm of his hand is joined by the hands of all the cast members. Lit by a spotlight, they create an unforgettable image of the loss of dignity suffered by so many during some America's darkest years.

Santo Loquasto designed the stunningly effective backdrops for this dance work, gloriously lighted by longtime Taylor collaborator, Jennifer Tipton, and he also fashioned the witty period costumes.

"Black Tuesday" is the 115th work choreographed by Taylor for his company, which has toured more than 60 countries and performed in 450 cities, most recently six Chinese cities. Following its New York run, the troupe will begin a national tour including California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio before embarking on a European tour with performances in Austria, Denmark, France and Italy.

Other Taylor works being performed in New York and at subsequent tour stops are "Dandelion Wine," an ode to spring, "Antique Valentine," an unconventional take on love and marriage, "Arden Court," a celebration of athletic pleasures, "White Rose Duet," an exploration of romantic love, "Counterswarm," a face-off between combative colonies of insects, "Speaking in Tongues," an admonitory work about religious orthodoxy, and "The Sorcerer's Sofa," a spoof on psychoanalysis.

Such a variety of themes is the result of a curious mind and what Taylor views as his ultimate task -- to be a reporter.

"I try to give more than one view of things," he said. "I'm afraid of preaching. Everybody has various opinions about things, and so I try to look at them from different sides. I like to think of myself as a reporter, not a preacher."

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