Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A first look at "Last Look"

By Paul Gordon Emerson

There are a handful of masters of the art of modern dance. Theirs are the works that transformed the field, reshaped our understanding of the possible, stood the test of time to remain fresh. Among the handful of that handful is Paul Taylor. His career, both as a dancer and as a dancemaker, spans the great age of modern. He danced for Graham. His own canon (he calls it a collection) is 125 dances in a choreographic career of 54 years and counting. The almost endless number of awards and accolades are perhaps summed by the San Francisco Chronicle, which calls him "the world's greatest living dancemaker."

Mr. Taylor's work spans the whimsical and the wicked, the beautiful and the bizarre. Deep beauty lives side-by-side with deep inquiry into the human mind, spirit and soul. To take in an evening of Taylor is to be met by a mind always at work and in astonishing command of music and movement, pattern and purpose. He makes you laugh as easily as cry, and, most rare of all, takes on the darkest questions with an elegance and ferocity that avoids the enormous risk of cliché to reveal their truth s unselfconsciously. Of this subset, the inquiry into darkness, "Last Look" stands, as Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote, "as th(e) most powerful and haunting of Taylor's works."

A post apocalyptic vision seems an odd work to take on the mantle of a masterpiece, but "Last Look" has attained this. The subject of a "Dance in America" special it retains its urgency even on the small screen. Live it unnerves as it empowers.

I first saw "Last Look" at a very different station in my life. As a defense and foreign policy analyst on Capitol Hill my days, nights and weekends were often completely consumed with the Cold War and the "long hard winter" which had endured throughout all my life and memory. Discussions of "throw weight" (meaning the ability of a nuclear missle to hurl warheads across the great expanse between Khazakstan and Washington, DC or Los Angeles) and yield, megatonage and blast radius, MIRVs and MARVs were as common for me over dinner as were those about the film at the Uptown. I was, at that time in the late 1980s a dabbler at best in dance. I dropped in and dropped out, and was far, far from the idea of dance as a career. "Last Look" was a cog in the wheel on the path to changing that. It changed, in an instant, my view of what was possible in dance. It was, in all ways, a "light bulb moment."

I remember distinctly sitting in the darkness of the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts awaiting the second act of an evening with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The score began in the darkness, elegant and giving little hint of the scene still unlit on the stage. And then, as the light grew, all I could think of was carnage, of that very thing all of us preoccupied with a nuclear exchange had, literally and figuratively, nightmares about. In the glint lay a mound of bodies, prostrate, heaped one atop the other and reflected in twisted and cantilevered array of mirrors that illuminated them and distended them all at once.

Over the course of the 20 minutes that ensued I wonder still if I took a breath. Horrified, entranced, compelled and conflicted, I thought perhaps that I had underestimated dance. For all the reading, all the intellectualizing, all the academic and legislative study I had undertaken in an attempt to make sense of, and in some small way make a contribution to, the demise of the nuclear era, I had never found in all those hours what the 20 minutes of "Last Look" had given. It had done so wordlessly and in a marriage of music, set and scene that seemed strangely, improbably perfect even as it was perfectly horrifying.

As I left the theater that night, face embedded in the program, I learned that Taylor himself was a Washingtonian transplanted to New York. I was a New Yorker transplanted to Washington. I remember walking home only because I forgot to hail a cab. Somewhere in that walk I also remember thinking "if I ever had a dance company of my own (which was simply out of the question) I'd want to share dances like "Last Look."

As CityDance has grown in these past few years the idea of "Last Look" has remained in my thoughts. In January of 2008, with a gifted cadre of dancers and a rehearsal director up to the task of staging a Taylor work, I wondered, finally, about actually asking Mr. Taylor for the honor of staging "Last Look." We were in New York as a part of the annual Arts Presenters Conference, and I asked Christopher Morgan, the aforementioned rehearsal director, if he would take a jump into the unknown and reach out to the Taylor organization.

I had no idea if we'd even get a reply.

(to be continued)

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