The Paul Taylor Dance Company brought three programs to San Francisco Performances this past weekend, presenting 10 pieces from the over 140 dances that Taylor has choreographed since he assembled his first company in 1954.

Paul taylor Dance Company in >em>Diggity* © Whitney Browne
Paul taylor Dance Company in >em>Diggity*
© Whitney Browne

A latecomer to dance and a soloist for Martha Graham at the beginning of his career, Paul Taylor ascribes firmly to modern dance’s idea of natural movement in choreography. His dances are constructed of walks, runs, and skips, decorated with occasional jumps and resolving into balletic gestures, often a simply curved arm, extended out or over the head. The pace is consistent, especially in its dynamics. There is very little of the bravura display that has characterized ballet from its beginnings, and the overall feel of the choreography deviates considerably from what is currently fashionable in choreography, especially contemporary ballet, which pushes dancers to the extremes of their formidably trained bodies. Mark Morris’ choreography resembles most closely Taylor’s approach (adding to it Morris’ own puckish form of humor).

Program B began with the San Francisco premiere of the 1978 Diggity, which opens with a woman in a knee-length full-skirted white dress standing among a couple of dozen or so two-dimensional mutts. Designs are by Alex Katz and like that artist’s famous work, flatly painted. The dogs are life sized, posed seated or lying in various doggy poses, their noses most often pointed in the direction of the dancer. They are white and beige and gray. Their still presence, which remains throughout the piece, is droll and whimsical, adding complexity to the overall joyousness of the choreography. Three couples join the dancer, the men in beige chinos and T-shirts, the women in white dresses. They are joined later by a strikingly pale redhead in silky pink boxer shorts and bra, careening her own idiosyncratic way through the changing configurations of dancers. A huge cabbage rolls onto the stage, and the dancers fringe its edges with brightly waving hands. The rose-shaped vegetable becomes a backdrop for the original girl in white, then falls to the floor where it morphs into a sunflower. The whole piece is refreshingly simple in its movement, with a dollop of dearness and a dash of the absurd. The dancers are wonderful in their continuous restless energy; it’s clear they enjoy dancing this piece. Additional kudos for dancing among a stage full of dog designs and not knocking one of them flat! The music was composed for the piece by Donald York.

The following (West Coast premiere of) Death and the Damsel is a three-movement meditation on death, using the metaphor of a black leather and fishnet gang who descend en masse on a young woman in pink. They appear first in her urban apartment, waking her from her bed, transforming her pleasant joy in solitude into a dark depression weighted by their shadowy maneuverings. They cluster, roll across the floor, cluster and circle again. The scene changes into a dance club, and the gang members dance with the young woman, eventually turning the dance into a gang rape: the young woman on her back, her legs forced open by one man after another. Death as a not-so-slow violation of the body is a valid perception from the point-of-view of the living, but I found the black leather and satin narrative rather cliché and reaching too hard for shock appeal. The change from set to set felt clunky, while the audience sat in darkness waiting for the rather conventional backdrops to be changed. A needed electric quality was missing from this piece. Music was by David Israel, with sets and costumes by Santo Loquato.

The 2002 Promethean Fire closed the program and brought back what Taylor is best at. Set to Stokowski’s orchestration of three organ and clavier works by Bach, the work resembles Taylor’s iconic 1975 piece Esplanade. Both works use the Bach works to construct restless and abstract exchanges of movement based on the Bach. In Promethean Fire, Taylor divides his 18 dancers into groups of men and women that then move through and between each other creating waves of energy. It is composed almost entirely of dancers running. Dressed in black unitards crossed with delicate purple chevrons (costumes by Santo Loquasto), the dancers show only bare feet and shoulders. At times those running feet create a frisson of movement that lofts into the purely abstract, and appear kaleidoscopic in their shifting shapes and color. It’s hard to explain what is so pleasing about this effect, but it is. And here is where Taylor makes his mark as a choreographer: in those complex interchanges that are built out of simple and pure human gestures, and that then transform into the unexpected and formally engaging.