PAUL TAYLOR'S new dance is a series of mousetraps. Alluring, deceptive, it invites interpretation and immediately tricks the interpreter. At the premi`ere last month at City Center here, Taylor's publicist was handing out copies of a Wallace Stevens poem which had given the dance its title, ``Of Bright & Blue Birds & The Gala Sun.'' She cautioned us that we weren't to suppose the poem itself had anything to do with the dance. Reading the poem at home, I thought it had everything to do with the dance, and after a second viewing I still do. Stevens celebrates the moment of unexpected but totally genuine happiness in which ``we are joyously ourselves and we think/ Without the labor of thought....'' Stevens might be describing the moment of great dancing, and much of Taylor's piece radiates this nearly superhuman exhilaration.
Taylor, being Taylor, also shows us the ``imperfect'' state out of which Stevens thinks this transfiguring moment springs. Ecstatic dancing in Taylor is not far from grotesquerie. One touch from a malevolent intruder can tie knots in the most lyrical body. One uncontrolled or improperly channeled impulse can turn affection to hate.
Though most of ``Of Bright'' is plotless, a moral sensibility pervades the piece, and this too is both imposed and subverted by Taylor. A subtitle in the program calls the dance ``an allegory,'' leading us to read it more literally than it looks. Lots of signals that might otherwise have been simply background take on arcane significance. Donald York's eclectic score folds various periods and dance styles into a sensual aural souffl'e. Santo Loquasto's complex set design features items like a large metallic fish hanging over one section of the dance and a bird of prey that swoops down on another. These somewhat menacing symbols are offset by the angel faces that ascend heavenward during the overture.
Transparent curtains divide the stage into different dancing spaces, and the whole two-act work is danced behind a scrim that blurs faces, bodies, and Jennifer Tipton's beautiful lighting. We might take these veiling devices as placing the dancers in different time zones or transforming their identities.
For me, there seemed to be one set of characters, a family perhaps, with a couple of subliminal doppelg"angers, namely Satan and his victims, and a dynasty of modern dancers, possibly fathered by Paul Taylor. All these archetypes have been previously established and related to each other in Taylor's choreography.
At the beginning of ``Of Bright,'' Elie Chaib, the current patriarch of the Taylor company, stands majestically on a little tilted Noguchi-ish platform that might have been modeled on the set for Martha Graham's ``Embattled Garden.'' Joao Mauricio crouches attentively at his feet. The tableau brings to mind both Taylor's dance ancestry and his present status as head of a new generation. Chaib introduces the 16 other dancers, who enter one or two at a time with individual exuberant dance phrases.
The company then winds its way into a long celebratory sequence incorporating Taylor's 1987 cosmic-disco dance ``Syzygy.'' To infectious music somewhere between the mambo and ``The Rite of Spring,'' the dancers boogie frenetically, with Kate Johnson as their leader. Johnson's long solo here showcases her supreme speed, lightness, mobility and buoyant investment in detail. She is one of the three or four completely captivating modern dancers I've seen. (At least one of the others, Ruth Andrien, was also a Taylor star.) Johnson has announced she intends to retire this year, and Taylor has built this history into his dance as well.
The men, led by Christopher Gillis, have a go at Johnson's phrase, but it turns kinky, angular instead of smooth. Distorted movement has always been equated in Taylor's universe with the uglier instincts, and in the second act of ``Of Bright'' Joao Mauricio conducts the participants, who've become sightless, to a kind of hell, where they writhe and twitch until their nasties are all spent. Chaib presides over this orgy, holding one woman after another high above him as if preparing a sacrifice. Finally calm is restored and so is the benevolent family.
Periodically during the dance, we've glimpsed the father-figure Chaib through layers of gauze, as if along with the dancers we're remembering scenes of childhood. Karla Wolfangle, tall and smiling, is Chaib's loving but sometimes antagonistic consort. Cochran and Mauricio get rebellious and are pushed away. But after the orgy, the whole clan is welcomed back in a long series of gathering and presenting processions. To Mahlerian cadences, the dance ends like an apotheosis - a picnic with sun, birds, gala, and all.