Paul Taylor's playful, generational look at his dance `family'

With the publication of his autobiography, ``Private Domain,'' this spring, Paul Taylor seems to have consolidated a long transition from dancer to patriarch, and his company's spring season at City Center has included a certain amount of role-playing. For instance, he gave four of his dancers (Kenneth Tosti, Christopher Gillis, David Parsons, and Douglas Wright) the chance to make solo dances that were slated for the repertory. And one of his own new works, ``Kith and Kin,'' details the differences between generations of dancers. The differences are important, and not only a matter of physical powers. Dancers in a modern dance or ballet company are always dependent, economically, intellectually, and spiritually, on the leaders who originate the work they do. As some of the most harrowing passages in Taylor's book demonstrate, a dancer can be ill-prepared to take on the responsibilities of maturity. He might easily have trouble distinguishing whether he's a child or a man. In Taylor's choreography, the child-adult metaphor recurs often. He thinks of his company as a family and has acted out family relationships with them on and offstage.

He's staged these ingeniously, sometimes making them symbolic of cosmic or historic themes and sometimes the subject of satire. In ``Kith and Kin,'' he seems to have fixed the nature of the old and the young with specific movement vocabularies, and then used their contrasting qualities for a purely formal composition. There's no struggle going on, and no evolution. Taylor, the creator, can view both sets of characters affectionately, but without ambivalence, without risk.

Taylor's choice of music, the Serenade No. 4, K. 203, by Mozart, is another departure. Though he's used just about every other kind of music - Baroque, modern, romantic, popular - he's seldom been drawn to the reassuring formalities of bedrock classicism. ``Kith and Kin'' has no peculiarities or loose ends. It's as neatly structured as a classical ballet, which it resembles except that the movement is derived from natural sources - walking, running, twisting, squatting, holding hands - rather than the classroom steps of ballet.

In ``Kith and Kin,'' Elie Chaib and Susan McGuire play the older generation in dark, almost Victorian costumes. (William Ivey Long was the designer.) They happen to be among the senior dancers in the company at the moment. Four other couples dressed in plain beige street clothes and bare feet play the kids, and are in reality those who've joined Taylor most recently. The seniors move slowly and almost always in place, stretching and twisting with stately calm. McGuire often smiles benevolently at her charges, and Chaib looks more stern. The younger dancers bounce and leap with punchy vigor. Though McGuire and Chaib are obvious parent figures, they could also be ballet masters in a class of apprentices, and when Cathy McCann sailed on in a short, white tank-top dress, the elders looked so pleased I thought maybe she was their prize pupil come back to show her stuff.

Throughout the dance, the older couple demonstrate steps for the younger ones to imitate. Sometimes they imitate twice as fast or with extra fillips of gesture. In one quartet, Mary Cochran and Jeff Wadlington exchange places with Chaib and McGuire in a repeat of a movement pattern. There's a minuet for all of them, a dance for McCann and four of the ``kids,'' and a return to formal group patterns leading to a final tableau.

Something bothers me about Taylor's way of age-defining movements, or maybe the excessive formality of ``Kith and Kin'' is a limitation. Neither the gravity of the elders nor the cuteness of the youngsters is quite convincing or witty. I especially wonder about his typecasting of the younger dancers. The same evening in the menacing and psychotic fantasy ``Last Look'' Sandra Stone, Barry Wizoreck and Reagan Wood held their own alongside the Taylor veterans Parsons, Tosti, McGuire, and Linda Kent. Clearly the company's future won't have to be just sweetness and light.

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