ONE of the many reasons to admire choreographer Paul Taylor is that his varied and entertaining repertory doesn't gloss over the darker side of life. The two new dances he showed during the first week of his company's month-long season at City Center represent contrasting themes and choreographic strategies. ``Minikin Fair'' is a circus of visual jokes that lets the dancers be virtuosically goofy, while ``Speaking in Tongues'' is an indictment of religious fanaticism, hypocrisy, and sexual repression. ``Minikin Fair,'' to a pastiche of marches and music-hall ditties by David Koblitz, Douglas Wieselman, and T.Spae, is a showcase for a crew of bumbling, amiable acrobats. The dancers are given a sketchy mise en sc`ene that could be a booth at a carnival; they are dressed in mustard-yellow union suits with discreet overpinnings made of handkerchiefs. Their routines either demand more of them than they can deliver or provide such minuscule challenges that their toughest job is to keep from looking bored.
When the show is opened by Joao Mauricio in a gymnastic display, followed by Christopher Gillis and Kate Johnson in a clumsy adagio culminating in one-handed Soviet-style lifts, you think this is going to be a raffish dance recital. But then Joseph Bowie rolls on, dressed in a tomato-worm-green contraption made of fabric stretched over some hoops. It looks a little like a barrel, but the bottom is closed, and it's too short for him; so naturally he can only get around by twisting and hurling his lower half in the direction he wants to go.
Eventually three nymphs appear, wearing abbreviated pink cloaks, with one red boot and one foot bare, which results in a dance style alternately clumpy and delicate. They drift into a game of jump rope with the flower garlands they're swinging, and after that Taylor just lets his imagination loose:
What if two people (Jeff Wadlington and Mary Cochran) got inside one cloak? Then Hernando Cortez and three cohorts appear with two red boots on and with another one on a stick. Partly concealing the sticks under their cloaks, they dance as if they had three legs. Reagan Wood and her airy assistants, now dubbed Quadrupedlets, return with two red boots on, and their own third leg on a stick. They pick up the booted sticks the men have left behind, and, well, you'd be surprised how many hilarious things a dancer can do with two extra feet and a straight face.
Taylor's dances can be extroverted, like ``Minikin Fair,'' or can seem to take place inside a closed community which the audience is allowed to visit, sometimes to our dismay. In the late '60s he made this duality explicit with a pair of dances, ``Public Domain'' and ``Private Domain.'' While the public pieces are for show, the private ones reveal the dancers playing to each other.
The public ones are upbeat, as cloudless as any Taylor dance ever gets. The private ones expose the underbelly of dancing, of relationships, and, in ``Speaking in Tongues,'' of society.
I don't yet know the meaning of this 40-minute dance. It's divided into 13 titled and subtitled sections, and the 13 dancers are given descriptive names in the program. Yet the implicit narrative breaks off, spurts up again, dissolves into more generalized solos and ensembles. I felt the influence of many of Taylor's teachers and peers in the work, and sometimes I thought he was doing an extended meditation on themes they had broached.
The central character (Christopher Gillis) is drawn from two of Martha Graham's puritanical icons, the Revivalist in ``Appalachian Spring'' and the Ancestress in ``Letter to the World.'' Called A Man of the Cloth, he spends much of the dance in frozen acquiescence to the awful behavior of the others. He gives his benediction to sinners and victims alike, and in an extended solo shows himself to be deeply tortured with doubt.
A black man (Joseph Bowie) tries to join a group and is rejected. A woman (Mary Cochran) is attracted to him and repeatedly dragged away by her mother (Karla Wolfangle). Later Bowie is beaten and lynched by the group. After some orgiastic duets, a woman (Cathy McCann) goes around absolving and reconciling everyone, like the Pioneer Woman in ``Appalachian Spring.''
In all this there are echoes of socially conscious dances from the '30s and '40s (Doris Humphrey's ``With My Red Fires,'' Antony Tudor's ``Pillar of Fire''). Taylor doesn't quite make the case for how this misdirected moralizing applies today. He also alludes to the portentous staging devices of Pina Bausch, the German dance theater choreographer (the dance takes place in a room with a proscenium-height wooden wall, folding chairs, and industrial lighting fixtures), and of American avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson (at one point, smoke seeps out of the wall).
I found the dance absorbing and sometimes terrifying, and Taylor's final image, entirely his own, the most chilling of all. The characters all lie down and slowly lower the folded-up chairs onto themselves while an evangelical voice that has been haranguing us through Matthew Patton's taped score whispers half-intelligible words. It was like closing the lids of their own coffins.