Last summer, Paul Taylor celebrated his 80th birthday. One of the most prolific choreographers of our time, he continues to generate works that are masterfully crafted, quizzical and compelling.
This Saturday at the Rialto Center for the Arts, the Paul Taylor Dance Company will perform a mixed bill featuring “Brandenburgs,” set to music by J.S. Bach; “Company B,” Taylor’s popular wartime piece to songs by the Andrews Sisters; and “Phantasmagoria,” set to music by anonymous Renaissance composers.
“Phantasmagoria” was given its world premiere last summer at the American Dance Festival. Costumed by Santo Loquasto and lit by Jennifer Tipton, the work evokes the world of Flemish master Pieter Brueghel’s painting “The Wedding Dance,” but soon takes a serendipitous trip through time, with a series of vignettes involving assorted characters: an East Indian Adam and Eve (complete with serpent), a Byzantine nun, an Irish step dancer, three Isadorables, a Bowery bum and more. “Phantasmagoria” has baffled some viewers. Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman interpreted the piece as “a commentary on what still binds the human spirit.”
We decided to get an inside perspective on this curious new work, headlined by a quotation from Lewis Carroll: “Life, what is it but a dream?”
When Taylor created “Phantasmagoria,” he set initial solo material on Annmaria Mazzini, who has danced for him for the past 16 years. Mazzini reflected on Taylor’s work and on her part in “Phantasmagoria,” her last major role before she retires at the end of May. (“Phantasmagoria” photos by Tom Caravaglia.)
Cynthia Bond Perry: Why is Paul Taylor’s work worth seeing again and again?
Annmaria Mazzini: There are so many layers within it; the details he puts in are just fascinating…. What’s in his head is so strange and wonderful, but he’s also an incredible craftsman. It shows in how his dances are laid out, how he uses patterns and how he uses movement motifs, where his inspiration comes from, and how he uses dancers as individuals who create these characters. A lot of them are archetypes that we’ve seen before in different dances, but these figures in his world keep coming back out.
Perry: What sets “Phantasmagoria” apart from other Taylor works you’ve danced?
Mazzini: “Brandenburgs,” for example, is one of Paul’s classic dance pieces. It’s pure dance and there are archetypes: the lead male and three women. There’s the corps group of men — the traditional foundation of the Taylor company is strong, virtuosic men. The costumes are uniform, and it’s a very technical dance, with a lot of intricate phrase work. There’s the wonderful Bach musicality that Paul is famous for. It’s got that excitement about it; it really builds and gets into your body as an audience member.
Perry: What is different about “Phantasmagoria,” compared to a classic piece like “Brandenburgs?”
Mazzini: It’s episodic; it doesn’t have one clear idea from beginning to end. It’s character-driven and the costumes are very theatrical. It’s a very non-linear dance. So it’s very stream-of-consciousness, and it’s not supposed to make sense; it’s supposed to make you feel a little bit off balance.
Perry: How do you think it will challenge audiences in Atlanta?
Mazzini: People like to make sense of things, and they want to know exactly what a choreographer’s intention is. And Paul doesn’t always do that. He is adamant about the audience deciding; he puts it out there for them to judge and to interpret. A lot of times we like to find the story, to hold onto something that makes sense, especially when we feel a little confused, but are intrigued and want to know more. So I think he can be a little bit of a tease that way.
Ultimately, he wants people to be comfortable with their feelings, and to know what they saw and felt. There aren’t any wrong answers in interpretation; it’s entirely whatever your opinion is. When you think, “I don’t know what that meant, but it made me feel this and this,” that gets the blood flowing and gets your thoughts and feelings stirred up.
Perry: In the process of building this dance, what was the most challenging for you?
Mazzini: Some of the body positions were really hard — things that would have been very easy for me 10 years ago…. And then there are a lot of comic elements to this dance, and it was hard to find the right way to thread the comedy. We had to keep working on it, figuring it out, and getting comfortable with it. And that was a challenge, but that was something I really enjoyed.
But Paul is constantly … as he’s creating, he’s always editing. It usually takes about five weeks to make a dance, and as we go into performance, we don’t know if it’s something we’ve solved, because it’s something we work on all the time. It’s like, the finished product is what it is tonight, but it’s still a constant process of growing and nurturing something to keep it alive and fresh.