Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps," that historic ode to motor-rhythmic violence, used to be a ballet about mythic ritual, the celebration of fertility, and transfiguration through the ultimate human sacrifice.
We have seen many a bizarre "Sacre" in our time, from the erotic Bejart distortion to the beefcake-oriented indulgences of Graham and Tetley to the dancing-dinosaur invention in Disney's "Fantasia" to the bare-breast, perspiration and peat moss extravaganza of Pina Bausch. None may have done much to reinforce the eternal verities, but, to some degree, all respected either the basic impulses of Nijinsky's original choreographic ideas or the basic integrity of Stravinsky's gut-thumping music. Or both.
The latest "Sacre du Printemps," which the Paul Taylor Dance Company introduced to Los Angeles at Royce Hall, UCLA, on Sunday, is significantly subtitled "The Rehearsal." That explains John Rawlings' modest costumes--variations of practice clothes--and his skeletal sets. That explains the use of the piano reduction of the score (New York at least got it live; impoverished Los Angeles, of course, had to settle for a performance by uncredited players on distorted tape).
That doesn't explain the "Rite of Spring" being transformed into the rape of Stravinsky.
Taylor has cranked out a very, very clever ballet. It contains a few irrelevant allusions to Nijinsky--some of the dancers move in the flattened profile postures of his Faun. It contains a few vague visual comments on the blurry distinctions between truth (dancers preparing a ballet) and illusion (dancers performing a ballet). It even contains some climactic murder at the end, as a hilarious, black-humored prelude to a stylized but virtuosic suicide charade for the Chosen One.
It is fun. More important--and more damaging--it also is funny. Taylor's imagination conjures up satiric images of black-and-white B movies. He has concocted an impeccable balletic collage in which a fawn resembling Clark Kent impersonates a private eye who helps a girl save a doll portraying her baby from Anna May Wong and a band of nasty crooks who finally succumb to the Keystone Kops as all but the girl die in a picturesque heap of corpses with the stabbed baby doll adorning the top like a cherry in a sundae.
Taylor dabbles knowingly, not always for apparent reasons, in mirror mime, in twisted love duets, in slinky hate-duets, in wind-up ensemble convolutions, in terpsichorean in-joke quotations, in artsy group athleticism and in the Leitmotivic appearances and disappearances of a mysterious woman with a cossack hat who may be a rehearsal mistress, may be the gun moll's alter ego, may be the chief ringleaderess of the underworld, may be Bronislava Nijinska, or may be all of the above.
There can be no denying the appeal of Taylor's kinetic, cinematic cartoon, or his obvious sensitivity to both the beat and the dynamics of Stravinsky's score. But--a very crucial but--there also can be no denying the disparity between the tone of Taylor's ballet, which is comic-comic-comic, and the tone of Stravinsky's music, which is anything but comic.
Taylor, like many a mastermind before and after him, apparently thinks all music is fair game for all choreography. If the sonic carpet fits the floor space, just roll it out.
That makes technical sense of course. But, it should be argued, the departed composer--be he Schubert or Mahler or Bach or Stravinsky--should have some rights too. The composer goes to considerable pains, after all, to create a mood, to define an expressive context. If a live dance maker wants to appropriate the work of a dead music maker, decency should require some allegiance to the basic mood and expressive context of the source.
If Stravinsky had wanted to write a comic score, he would no doubt have written one. If Taylor needed a comic score, he might have searched for a legitimate old one or, better yet, commissioned a funny new one. What we have now is a very good, brilliantly executed, funny ballet superimposed on an achetypally serious score.
The mismatch grates the senses of dance aficionados who listen while they look. Such aficionados, apparently, are a vanishing breed.
Ironically, Taylor does have a genuine pagan-ritual ballet in his currenty repertory. But that piece, "Runes," was performed Friday night. "Sacre" shared the bill Sunday with "Private Domain," a 15-year-old exercise in now-you-see-it-now-you-don't modernity, and the neoclasssic "Mercuric Tidings" of 1982, which was played here during the last Taylor visit.
"Private Domain"--presented without its natural sequel, "Public Domain"--is a forward-looking ensemble piece for three hunky men in bathing trunks and four acrobatic women in bikinis. Poker-faced, they couple and uncouple in wondrous, uninhibited, permutations and combinations behind the thick panels of Alex Katz's set, which constantly hides part of the continuing action and inaction from various portions of the audience.
This, obviously, is a conscious act of frustration, the ultimate mechanization of sexual interplay, the striptease-minus-stripping in excelsis . The dancers give it everything they have, which is a lot. As accompanied by the otherworldly sounds of Iannis Xanakis' "Atrees," it exerts a strange fasciantion. For a while.
"Mercuric Tidings," by comparison, is all innocence: a rather frenzied but nice translation of early Schubert lyricism, a gentle spoof of the happy tippy-toe bacchanal and a gratefully complex challenge for 13 delirious dancers. The only lingering problem involves Gene Moore's costumes, which suggest that the men in flesh-colored tights all managed to sit in something red and drippy.