A big, push rose graces the stage of "Arden Court," which has just been premiered during the Paul Taylor Dance Company's run through May 3 at the City Center. Painted by Gene Moore, the rose might stand for spring. More specifically, it might refer to England's spring in honor of the dance's English baroque composer, William Boyce. But certainly that rose comes to signify all that is richly fragrant in "Arden Court."
For this is a beautiful dance that flows straight from the music into the audience's muscles, with the dancers as the transparent medium of exchange. Mr. Taylor hears music right. Whereas many a choreographer might try to glaze baroque music with gentility, he lets us hear it, and see it, as it is -- robust , energetic, amusing. "Arden Court" has a wholeharted honesty about it, a quality that one may not necessarily connect with courtly manner but which gives this dance courtly dignity on its own terms.
While paying attention to the music's spirit, Taylor also heeds its structure. Just as the baroque orchestra is often divided between two camps, a solid continuo and fluttery ornamentation from the violins and flutes, so are the dancers divided. One group or person often moves with heavy, stately attack while the other camp takes off like grasshoppers.
Interestingly, the differences between the choregraphic treble and bass line, as it were, don't align themselves into traditional gender roles. The women aren't always grasshoppers --fiddle, too.
All in all, however, "Arden Court" presents its biggest bouquet of roses to the men. It begins and ends with each of the six men in the cast tearing across the stage in fantastic leaps, each cutting extraordinarily intricate, or baroque , shapes in the air. Even more exhilarating is a male sextet in the middle of the dance, in which the men move with equal complexity of design but at twice the speed. The brilliance of it sends you to the edge of your seat, and by the time "Arden Court" has leaped its last you feel ready to jump a few hurdles yourself.
Not all of Taylor's dances are as up as "Arden Court." In fact, if there was ever a downer, it's his "From Sea to Shining Sea." This theater piece takes a wickedly comic view of American history and myth. It's the kind of view that finds the Statue of Liberty bedraggled, the Pilgrims blithely (and arrogantly) uncomprehending toward Indians, and Middle America wandering about glumly in bathrobes. Only when they brush their teeth do they perk up.
Underlying the many funny sight gags, however, is a grim air bordering on violence. The timing of each episode is purposely flat. The lighting is dim. And the scenery is in tatters.
Atmospherically, "From Sea to Shining Sea" is hardly the occasion for a gala benefit featuring guest artists Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Hermione Gingold, Gwen Verdon, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green. The piece's structure, however, is just right for cameo appearances. And sure enough, on opening night of the Taylor season there each star was, doing his and her bit with esprit and not too much ham. Comden brushed her teeth superbly. Verdon did a smashing tap dance. And Nureyev and Baryshinikov, on the stage together for the first time, didn't try to trip each other. At their duet curtain call, in fact, a more palsy-walsy bow I've never seen.