How Paul Taylor takes on big themes without getting stuffy about it

One reason Paul Taylor is a beloved modern dance choreographer is that his works take on big themes without getting stuffy about it. One reason Taylor is considered a major creative force is that he dares to take on formidable music -- and make it work for him.

These two factors -- amiability and daring -- can be seen in ''Orbs,'' a newly revived dance featured in the Paul Taylor Dance Company's current season at the City Center, which runs through May 2.

Divided into the four seasons of the year and performed by figures representing the sun, the planets, and the moons, ''Orbs'' is cosmic in scope. For his rendition of the cosmos, Taylor asks the services of none other than Beethoven. Choreographers generally stay away from this composer, considering his music too monumental for dance.

Taylor is no fool but he loves a challenge, and when he throws down the gauntlet, he flings it. The music accompanying this dance of the spheres is from Beethoven's last quartets, including the landmark Great Fugue.

Especially wonderful about ''Orbs'' is that, despite its musical and thematic importance, it's most aptly described as charming. ''Orbs'' opens with the planets learning the language of love from the sun (spring) and culminates in a wedding ceremony (autumn, the time of harvest). This progression is not easily accomplished, however. The planets are an unruly bunch when aroused by the sun's heat. They either squabble or, in the height of summer, fall into deep torpor. Although ably abetted by a retinue of moons, the sun must work hard to make the seasons progress according to plan. He has to cajole, and sometimes he must get plain furious.

That Taylor should conceive of setting the sun's wrath to the sinewy Great Fugue is one of the dance's great risks and delights. Neither the music nor dance is trivialized by the marriage. At the same time, one knows that Taylor knows he's being outlandish by choreographing anything to that piece of music. The dance twinkles ironically at us in that knowledge. Humor is more outright in the farcical nuptial ceremony and meal, set to the scherzo of the quartet, Op. 130.

With due respect to these highlights, however, all of ''Orbs'' is permeated by Taylor's conception of the sun figure. He is indeed powerful, but he is also part pixie, part matchmaker, and a good deal of Oberon tending to his very mortal flock of planets.

Rest assured that the sun's will prevails. Although the world is a drunken shambles in autumn, all is law and order by winter. The final scene finds the moons and planets once more in harmonious orbit around the sun.

Taylor made ''Orbs'' in 1966, when he was still a relatively novice choreographer. This season he has gone even deeper into his past by creating a new dance based on his work of 1957. At that time he was interested in minimalist movement, sharing with many of his colleagues a desire to revolt against standard norms. It was a time when a guy could scratch his nose and call it a dance.

In the new ''Lost, Found and Lost'' Taylor replays those terribly serious, terribly austere times with a new twist. By setting basic movements such as standing and walking and scratching your nose to cocktail-hour music (arranged with just the right overdose of plushness by Donald York), Taylor makes the whole premise of minimalism ridiculous. Like the music, the dancing is banal, flat, and smarmy in its oversimplified simplicity.

As a put-down of an era, ''Lost, Found and Lost'' makes its point hands down. But I also wonder if Taylor has not gotten hoisted with the old petard. Seeking to expose an artistic trend, he almost embodies it. ''Lost, Found and Lost'' verges on being inane.

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