The first time modern dance and classical ballet encountered each other on the New York City Ballet stage, in 1959, Martha Graham made a psychological narrative about Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots for her own company with one NYCB dancer, and George Balanchine created the abstract, modernistic ``Episodes'' for his company with a solo for a Graham dancer named Paul Taylor. Three decades and a lot of cross-referencing later, the two genres met again during the last week of the NYCB's American Music Festival, and it seemed the battle had been rejoined. The protagonists were the same Paul Taylor and his own modern dance company, with NYCB soloist Peter Frame. On the ballet side were Merrill Ashley and Adam Luders, in NYCB artistic director Peter Martins's choreography for them and two exemplars of the Taylor style, Kate Johnson and David Parsons. It was by far the most stimulating evening of the festival.
Martins took a conventional, even regressive view of the confrontation. In ``Barber Violin Concerto,'' to the 1941 score, he seems to see modern dance as ``primitive,'' threatening to the composure and maybe even the morals of ballet dancers. He offers us two paradigms: Ashley and Luders, tall, elegant, and aristocratically aloof; Johnson and Parsons, a complementarity of physical extremes - tiny and light, big and weighty. Right away you could see that Martins was exploiting the kinkier aspects of modern dance, giving Parsons and Johnson what he thinks of as Taylor movement, with emphatic turned-in legs and crooked arms and bent-over bodies.
The two couples state their terms alone, then dance simultaneously but almost unaware of each other. Then they exchange partners. The Ashley-Parsons duet is the princess and the frog all over again. Parsons galumphs along behind Ashley, his arms splayed out as if he needed them to balance an ungainly bulk. (Parsons, by the way, has to work hard to make himself look this clumsy and menacing.) She seems terrified of his embrace and tries to slither out of it, but at some point finally succumbs, and is transformed. I've never seen Ashley so totally confident in a partner, and she seems to abandon herself to his solid support. But she recovers quickly from this indulgence, and my last image is of her trying to straighten his arms and turn him into an unwilling prince.
If modern dance represents physical license to Ashley, to Luders it's a maddening itch. Johnson streaks around him as he sleepwalks across the stage, leaping on his back, buzzing near his face with her hands. His struggles to fend her off are hilarious, and you'd think, what with her superhuman speed and his inability to focus on her, that she'd get the better of him. But the ballet ends as he throws her decisively to the floor.
Meeting Martins's defense of ballet territory with an equally polemical challenge, Taylor's ``Danbury Mix'' insisted on the grotesque, dark proclivities of modern dance. Set to selections from Charles Ives, ``Danbury Mix'' is almost a pastiche of Taylor themes and phrases. Karla Wolfangle, dressed in a handsome silver jump suit by William Ivey Long, is the totemic leader of 17 dancers dressed in simple black dresses and pants. She strides ahead and they tumble after her, anarchic, clotting together in little groups that threaten to overrun each other and her as well. Momentarily, they shape up (``Circus Band March'') with Peter Frame as their drum major. But pandemonium breaks out again as they all start doing their bits and stunts as fast as they can, falling, sliding, cartwheeling, sometimes slamming into each other.
The music for this last section is Ives's ``Three Places in New England,'' with its overlapping, discordant musical ideas, and as it lurches to a closing consensus with the first two measures of ``The Star-Spangled Banner,'' Wolfangle is suddenly left all alone, and a row of black-and-white American flags unfurls on cue behind her as the curtain falls.
I thought it was brave of Taylor, who has made several pretty dances that conveyed themselves easily into ballet repertories, to risk the audience's displeasure by making such an earthbound and chaotic festival piece. I decided he was aiming to show how his personal vocabulary can be cast, unsanitized, in a formalistic mold. It's invigorating to think modern dance can still be distinguished from ballet when it wants to be.