The vitally important, dismayingly uneven PBS "Dance in America" series again mangles masterpieces in an episode tonight devoted to two recent works by Paul Taylor. This hour-long, studio taped, Danish-U.S. co-production is scheduled at 8 p.m. on Channel 24, at 9 on Channel 15 and at 10 on Channel 28, plus a showing on Saturday at 9 p.m. on Channel 50.
Taylor's "Roses" and "Last Look" are watershed creations in American modern dance, but their achievements scarcely survive the insensitive TV transfers directed by Thomas Grimm.
Like Taylor's "A-list" classics ("Aureole," "Airs," "Arden Court"), "Roses" defines an idealized all-American gallantry through athletic group encounters and duets set to music of great nobility and elegance (here Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" and the Adagio for Clarinet and Strings by Heinrich Baermann). As always, the flow of motion is remarkable in Taylor's style and his lyrical use of gymnastics brilliantly innovative.
Unfortunately, Grimm introduces so many diversionary changes of camera angle that the continuity of the work suffers and the crucial relationship between soloists and ensemble is all but obliterated.
Most of these switches from wide-angle views to medium shots to close-ups and back are pointless: They don't reflect changes or emphases in the choreography and music. They don't involve the viewer more deeply in Taylor's vision. They merely impose a nervous, arbitrary optical variety: a staccato intrusion in a legato dance.
Because fragmentation is one of Taylor's devices in "Last Look," this work suffers less from Grimm's camera cutting. But all the closeups do distort the scale of the work, making many of Taylor's expressive choices appear overwrought.
Accompanied by Donald York's score, the Taylor dancers here detail patterns of self-obsession, self-loathing and violent, doomed attempts to break free of a rat's maze of mirrors and other bodies.
This is dance-theater, American style: as intense and bleak as anything the West Germans or French have produced but deeply informed with a dance sensibility as well. Indeed, the work's most startling accomplishment may be finding ways to reconceive gestural expressions conveying disgust and other pointedly ugly feelings as full-body statements: dance motifs.
Just as the floating gymnastic partnering gambits in "Roses" represent an expansion of the dream scene in "Sunset," so the twitchy, contorted movement in "Last Look" represents an expansion of Taylor's experiments in such works as "Dust."
At 57, he continues to stretch his range and our expectations. And his company (headed in this telecast by the imposing David Parsons) continues to set a high standard for all contemporary performance.