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Dancing with partners

Paul Taylor's distinctive works are incomplete until longtime colleagues Jennifer Tipton (lighting) and Santo Loquasto (costumes, sets) step in.

June 20, 2004|Susan Reiter | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — The earliest hints that a new Paul Taylor dance is about to emerge occur when the master choreographer begins a private dialogue with his choice of music. After this extended period of careful listening, the piece takes shape during an intensive rehearsal process with Taylor's company of 16 dancers. But before a new work is ready for the stage, the choreographer relies on two other longtime collaborators -- lighting designer Jennifer Tipton and set and costume designer Santo Loquasto -- to intuitively grasp its essence and complete its look.

The results, as anyone who has sampled even a small portion of the extensive Taylor repertory knows, are varied and unpredictable. Each work has its own specific tone, whether hauntingly mysterious, gently nostalgic, luminously affirmative or demonically disturbing. The program that the Paul Taylor Dance Company will bring to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next weekend -- three works spanning more than half the company's 50-year history -- includes one of his most exultant, expansive pieces, the 1982 "Mercuric Tidings," as well as the 1975 "Runes," in which the dancers seem to emerge from some distant, primal realm to enact unpredictable moonlit rituals.

For the third work, the company will present the first Los Angeles performances of "Promethean Fire," a powerful example of Taylor's mature craftsmanship and richness of invention. Created in 2002 during a period when he was often turning to popular American music of various decades, it is set to what initially seems an unlikely choice: Leopold Stokowski's super-sized (some might say bombastic) orchestrations of three Bach scores, including the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, used previously in Disney's "Fantasia."

A full-company piece that operates on a grand emotional scale, with dense, intricate patterning but also moments of searing intimacy, "Promethean Fire," with its fierce solemnity, burnished glow and stark black-on-black palette, also vividly showcases the seamless collaboration between Taylor, 73, and what has become his exclusive design team.

As he has since 1966, Taylor trusted Tipton, who comes to see his pieces in the studio only when they are completed, to find a way to cut to the heart of the dance with her sensitive, flexible lighting. "She's seen my work for so long that I don't have to explain anything to her," Taylor said during a phone interview from his home on Long Island. "There's very little conversation between us. She understands my work very well. I can trust her absolutely. Her contribution to my work is phenomenal."

Tipton always makes herself available when Taylor has a premiere, despite a busy, far-flung schedule of commitments in dance, theater and opera. In recent weeks, she has been lighting productions for South Carolina's Spoleto Festival USA and in Hong Kong. "Paul and I have always seemed to understand each other's work," she said from her hotel in Charleston, S.C., where she was lighting a new piece by choreographer David Gordon.

At 67 one of the eminences in her field, Tipton got her start as a lighting designer in the 1960s with the fledgling Taylor troupe. She was a modern dancer herself, performing with a group called the Merry-Go-Rounders, when fellow dancer Dan Wagoner introduced her to the choreographer on the New York City subway.

"I found him impressive as a person and as a performer," she said. "I came to love the dances Paul was doing at that time." She also became the company's stage manager, responsible for re-creating the lighting plots of her mentor, Tom Skelton, as she toured with the troupe for seven years. Eventually, she graduated from being Skelton's assistant to designing the lights herself. Her first assignment was a daunting one: Taylor's 1966 "Orbs," a two-act work set to the late quartets of Beethoven. Since then, she has lighted every work he has choreographed.

The two are clearly artistic soul mates who share an affinity for nonverbal communication. "Since the beginning of my professional life, I've found that I am more articulate with light than with words, and I think Paul is more comfortable speaking through the dance -- although he has a beautiful way with words," she said. And whatever other demands fill her calendar, Tipton remains devoted to the theatrical domain where she honed her craft. "The space of the dance is made by light. In theater, the space is more often made by scenery. It is in dance that one often finds the opportunity to paint with light -- a very satisfying challenge."

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