Yankee doodles are just dandy

Paul Taylor Dance Company | Sadler's Wells, London Trisha Brown Dance Company | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It might look like good planning, but getting American dance's top two heavy hitters in London the same week was pure serendipity. Trisha Brown, 64, godmother of postmodernism, was bringing Dance Umbrella to a close. Paul Taylor, 70 and unclassifiable, was trophy of the season at Sadler's Wells. His company hasn't set foot in Britain for a decade.

It might look like good planning, but getting American dance's top two heavy hitters in London the same week was pure serendipity. Trisha Brown, 64, godmother of postmodernism, was bringing Dance Umbrella to a close. Paul Taylor, 70 and unclassifiable, was trophy of the season at Sadler's Wells. His company hasn't set foot in Britain for a decade.

A smiling, dapper, giant of a man, Taylor has seen it all, and been it all too. He was a dancer with both Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, and making his own radical work in Manhattan lofts a full 10 years before anyone in Britain got their shoes off. But as soon as everyone else latched onto minimalism, Taylor was off on a new tack: setting luscious lyrical movement to the music of Handel and Bach. He's been happily style-hopping ever since.

At Sadler's Wells he began in his classical-ish mode. Cascade, set to three keyboard concertos by Bach, seizes on the joyous bounce in Baroque music. Some steps might look a bit like ballet, but the effect is chunkier and more earthy. A string of jumps sends Taylor's dancers bounding along the ground rather than floating in air, their speed generated by arms swung like paddles. A childlike sense of liberty prevails, and your spirits can't help but soar. Especially with the London Musici delivering such crisp roulades of notes. Stephen Lade's playing quite won me over to Bach on piano.

Piazzolla Caldera, a tribute to the Argentine tango composer, might have been the work of some other choreographer: dark, sultry, "smelling of lilies and urine", as Pablo Neruda said of Piazzolla's music. Rather than imitate tango directly, Taylor is clever. He creates its effect without copying a single step, and homes in on peripheries: the narcissism, the combative sexuality, the bleary machismo of drink. One memorable sequence is a men's dance that begins as a slow, slurred duet - two guys in their cups who can't decide whether they want a punch-up or a hug - and gradually adds more lurching bodies until they all end up in a heap.

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring has long been a magnet for choreographers, though to my mind nothing has matched Disney and his dinosaurs. Paul Taylor's version has to be seen to be believed. On paper, it's barmy: two simultaneous narratives, one about a Russian dance troupe, the other about a jewel heist and a kidnapped baby, both using scraps of choreography from Nijinsky's infamous original, and presented almost entirely in profile.

Sounds impossible. Looks fabulous. I confess I didn't follow all the ins and outs of the stories, but it hardly mattered. Funny and massively stylish, it just made you goggle at the sheer inventive feat. I loved the 2-D cartoon characters: cops and gangsters, and even a Clark Kent-style geek, whose sense of outraged justice suddenly gives him the muscle to bend prison bars. Again, live music (in Stravinsky's own arrangement for two pianos) gave the performance the kind of oomph and presence you just don't get from a disc. Simon Crawford-Phillips and Philip Moore were the 20 fingers of steel.

Trisha Brown had been making dance for 30 years before she tackled classical music. And now she's turned her mind to jazz. For this British tour she brings two pieces set to music by jazzman Dave Douglas, plus Twelve Ton Rose - not a jokey skit about a fat girl, but an elegant essay on the hopelessness of trying to translate the 12-tone techniques of Webern (I'm glad not everything is possible).

Naturally, Brown goes big on improvisation for the jazz pieces. Which is not to say she lets her dancers make it up. Even when the surface looks chaotic there turns out to be a fierce logic at work. And even in obviously spontaneous parts - a game of grandmother's footsteps minus the grandmother, or a larky follow-my-leader which gets the dancers giggling in the effort to keep up - the range of movements is prescribed.

Unlike Taylor's tango, Brown's response to jazz doesn't look jazzy. Some of it is casually pedestrian, some kinetically complex - dancers skittering and jittering in weird retrogrades. What stops it being too intellectual is the ripple of fun that runs throughout. When each of five dancers suffers a nasty fall - whump! - on her bum, it looks so much like an accident that there's a wave of shocked sympathy - until the audience twigs they're allowed to laugh.

Trisha Brown: Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844) Mon

Comments