Intentionally or otherwise, it was this season's clearest example thus far of curation as critique: One dance work magnified the shortcomings in another simply by being placed next to it in a concert setting. The place: Page Auditorium last weekend, during the shared performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the American Dance Festival. The works juxtaposed: Paul Taylor's Changes, a new piece commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Ballet in May, and Twyla Tharp's 1996 opus, Sweet Fields.
Tharp's razor-sharp lines and the precision of her vocabulary of movement, clearly articulated by Aspen Santa Fe's 11 dancers, communicated the choreographer's vision and insight, not only of the Sacred Harp and Shaker hymns that form the basis of the dance, but also their inherent spirituality. If anything, designer Todd Elmer's arrangements of darkness and shadowy light—changed from Jennifer Tipton's original design—increased the contrast between the dancers' light white costumes by Norma Kamali and their surroundings.
It's easy to read in this convergence of movement and design an attempt to clarify and manifest the human spirit at its essence—a nature clearly lighter than the body housing it, but one still bound by it and by gravity on an earthly plane.
In a sober passage, a group bears a man's body using weight-sharing techniques that were noticeably rougher than those of Pilobolus. And whimsy distracts us elsewhere: Company members give one other impromptu massage and back cracks toward the end of the work, while a dancer's rapid motion of his arms in front of him becomes a transparent cue for applause when we realize the work is at a close.
Still, in Sweet Fields it's clear that Twyla Tharp has taken an inspiration and made an artwork that communicates something distinctive and new.
The same cannot be said for Paul Taylor's Changes. In it we find even more of the difficulties that beset De Sueños, which premiered at ADF last summer. Again, Taylor is crutching on costumes and music that have more content than the too generic moves he's created to accompany them.
His dancers are identifiable as young people in the 1960s: From designer Santo Loquasto's collection of hip-huggers, Nehru-styled upperwear, fringed leather vests and headbands, to the era's dance moves like the frug and mashed potato that they occasionally quote, to an odd power salute at one point and a mimed sharing of a joint at another juncture in the work.
At the start, the showy, momentary one-by-one poses by the lead dancers in a rock concert setting suggests the opening credits of a TV show—but they communicate nothing but the fact that they are leads.
Another section gives us a young woman (possibly a pop star) who can literally knock everyone around her off his or her feet. That's all. A tiresome third section adds nothing of value to the thrice-told tale of a beautiful yet unattainable woman who attracts and rebuffs guys who haven't got a chance.
A schism erupts when another scene inexplicably takes us to a mountain backwoods cabin where a man in a bear suit decloaks to comfort what's presumably a child in his pajamas. James Sampson and Francisco Graciano's movements are the most carefully composed and finely detailed in the new work.
It's tempting to conclude they're the only characters whom the choreographer really cares about. Unfortunately, they and the cryptic section they're in seem a complete non-sequitur, one air-lifted in from another, better dance work. When they're done, it's back to the rock show.
Taylor's program notes state his opinion that the '60s were not, in fact, singular—that in every era there's the demand for radical change. His statement concludes with the world-weary bromide, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
But Changes gives no hint on stage of the political upheavals of the period or the issues of social unrest and injustice that precipitated them. From his personal statement about the work and the content of its sections, we infer that the '60s were about going to concerts, getting stoned, flirting with impossible lovers—and that's about all. It's a radically limited view—but it's one that seems to capture the limited amount of imagination and insight that went into the choreography for Changes.