When the New York City Opera vacated the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, it made room for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. I did see this company once at the New York City Center, but I wasn’t paying attention to the audience, or if I did, they didn’t leave an impression one way or the other. Now at Lincoln Center the audience was quite interesting to me. So much so that I have more to say about the audience than the performance I saw. I am usually in the David H. Koch Theater to see the New York City Ballet and am accustomed to the make up of that audience, but this Paul Taylor audience was so distinctly different that I became fascinated by the why of it.
The New York City Ballet has a greater portion of the audience dressed up. A lot of people make an effort to look like something. There are heals and hose and ties and jackets and furs and haircuts and cologne and looks. The other half, lost among the more glamorous, are wearing Friday business casual. Among that group there is a subset who just doesn’t care what they look like and no one turns them away, so why shouldn’t they wear jeans and a t-shirt to the ballet? The ballet should be for everyone after all. It would really be no good for it to be an elitist entertainment, but it has that reputation all the same. I personally feel that since life is so casual that it is nice to find a reason to dress up and the ballet at Lincoln Center is a mighty fine reason. Lucky for me about half of the audience of the New York City Ballet feels the same way...for whatever reason.
Waiting to be let in to the lobby and house of the David H. Koch Theater and watching the patrons arrive I immediately started to notice that the Paul Taylor crowd was very different from the New York City Ballet crowd that patronizes the same space. There was a great variety in ages from the very old to the very young. Over all the group is more eclectic. They seem more mixed––coming from very divergent backgrounds, types of jobs, types of enclaves. I looked at this crowd as people who might never socialize with each other outside of the theater, but because of Paul Taylor they came together to share in the one thing where we all held common ground. The common ground isn’t ballet, or support for the arts, or dance in general, but Paul Taylor. There is something about what Paul Taylor does that has created a unique audience. I have no idea why, but I could sense it and I could see it as a collective character.
Now let’s break down the collective character into individuals––the folks in the general vicinity of my seat, which was the front of the second ring, as a case study. I was a single ticket holder and it was clear to me that the fellows on either side of me were too. In fact, I deduced that a number of people in front of me and further down the aisle from me were by themselves. I don’t mind going to the theatre by myself and apparently neither did a lot of people in my seating section. The young man next to me seemed to be a thirty-something, with a beard, a hair cut of no particular style or care taken with it and he dressed like a farmer. I can imagine him back in my hometown in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains picking apples. Right after getting those apples picked he hopped the subway to make it to a 7:30 curtain for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. The young man on my right side seemed to be twenty-something with no particular style, but he seemed more pulled together in his way than the farmer on my left. He was dressed casually nondescript and wore sneakers. The single lady on the other side of him looked to be around fifty years old and spent her time during intermissions reading The New Yorker. A man in front of me, who looked suspiciously like Edward Gorey with balding head and long white beard, carried a satchel full of newspapers, which he read before the show and during intermissions. These folks were treating Lincoln Center like a coffee house. I mean, this wasn’t a poetry reading, but really there isn’t anything wrong with a little intellectual pursuit between acts. The program didn’t have much to offer anyway. Once you glance through the biographies of Paul Taylor and his dancers there isn’t anything but ads.
A row up and over was someone closer to what I think of as a ballet patron. He was a thirty-something gay man (I could be wrong about the sexual orientation, but I’ll bet money that I’m right), with a neat haircut and a very loud bow tie, but generally fashion oriented. He was dressed to be seen at this event. There was another gay couple––one Asian and one generally caucasian––dressed in a kind of stylish under-dressed for an event kind of way. You could appreciate that they were particular about how they presented themselves, but it was still pretty dressed down. Running around the first ring lobby were two kids around eleven and twelve years old that were exquisitely dressed for children. The girl had a very stylish blue and white dress that might have come from the 1920s with white knee socks and shiny little black shoes. The boy wore a blue blazer and tie over a checked shirt, with kakis and brown topsiders. The boy was very energetic and seemed to need to bounce around. I don’t know how he sat still for the actual performance. His very hip looking grandmother, who was casually elegant, sent the two kids outside to the balcony over looking the Lincoln Center fountain to run up and down the length of the building. I’m sure this wore them out a bit so that they could manage the second act.
At the second act, the Edward Gorey impersonator pulled out field glasses to watch the show. I wish I could have snapped a picture in the dark, for he was such a character. Two ladies a few seats down, who did come together, kept asking each other in an audible whisper what everything was supposed to mean. They just couldn’t understand the story. Neither could I always, but one doesn’t need to constantly ask the question during the performance.
As for the performance itself, I had come based on my fascination with Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” or “Le Sacre Du Printemps.” Paul Taylor has retitled the piece, “The Rehearsal.” This was a two piano arrangement rather than the big orchestral piece we all know from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. It’s not that “The Rite of Spring” isn’t performed in full anymore, but it is one of the rare ballets. What are you going to do with that piece of music? You are either going to recreate the Nijinsky choreography as the Joffrey Ballet does or you are going to do something basically like it because, after all, it’s supposed to be a ritual. The other thing to do is come up with something completely different––in fact opposite. This is what Paul Taylor has done. He has made a little story ballet out of it, having something vaguely to do with the backstage goings on of a ballet or theatre troupe. One of the characters goes to jail, escapes and is trailed by the police back to the dressing room. There is a girl and a few slick gangster looking fellows involved and it is all rather entertaining and slightly comical, but I didn’t understand the story-telling a lot of the time and have no idea what the point was. Maybe there wasn’t really a point and it was all just for fun. On that level it gets high marks. The only nod to Nijinsky was that the style of the piece adopted Nijinsky’s two dimensional, Egyptian art-like movements famous from “Afternoon of the Faun.” Paul Taylor is straying from the original intension of the Stravinsky and Nijinsky collaboration, but he can’t quite separate from that influence entirely. Still, the style added to the general comedic nature of the piece that at first listen has no sense of comedy in it. He plays against the music in a really brilliant way because it somehow makes sense. “The Rite of Spring” feels as right with Paul Taylor’s choreography as it does with Nijinsky’s concept.
The middle piece was called “Last Look.” The dancers in primary colors danced around a series of mirrored folding screens in very dark light. This was interesting for two minutes and then I thought about other things. Mr. Edward Gorey put is binoculars down and I’ll bet the well dressed kids asked if they could go home.
The third piece, “Esplanade,” is apparently famous and popular, for the crowd applauded it as the curtain went up (this hadn’t happened for the first two pieces). They applauded in odd places that I couldn’t figure out, because nothing particularly amazing had happened to warrant the applause. However, then came the last section with the dancers rolling and sliding on the stage, throwing and catching each other in interesting ways, just going and going and going with ever growing energy and abandon and it was exhilarating. The audience really cheered for it and the ovation was deserved.
Is it a problem that I was as equally interested in the make up of the audience as the performance? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe the odd crew sitting around me was really quite like me and just came by to see what was going on––what this Paul Taylor chap was all about. They probably got something out of part of it and shrugged their shoulders at other parts of it as I did. Actually, the cheering people were all down in the expensive seats. My group was attentive, but not demonstrative. The two levels of seating above us were empty, so Paul Taylor doesn’t fill the venue. I wonder now what the upper levels looked like when he was at the gigantic City Center? I overheard a manager type gentleman in a business suit say to another fellow who was congratulating him on the “momentum” the company was experiencing and he said that although he was encouraged by that sense of momentum, the reality was that they were a bad box office intake away from closing shop. It’s been do or die for Paul Taylor from the day one, but the day one was in 1954, so by hook or by crook Paul Taylor is a survivor and his audience is as eclectic and interesting as his dance company.