In the not-too-distant past, a metaphorical Berlin Wall separated modern dance and ballet. Barefoot dancers and ballerinas in point shoes endured a relationship that was tolerant at best and downright hostile at worst. But within the last two decades, a radical shift has occurred. Ballet companies now commonly hire modern choreographers to create contemporary works, while modern dance companies hire dancers trained in ballet.
Particularly emblematic of that unique synthesis of styles is the partnership Houston Ballet has developed with one of the greatest living modern dance choreographers, Paul Taylor. Since 1991, Houston Ballet has danced three of Taylor's works, two of which were commissioned specifically for the company. In April, the Kennedy Center invited the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Houston Ballet together to perform works by Taylor on an unprecedented program titled Celebrating an Icon: The Legacy of Paul Taylor. Both of the Taylor works commissioned by Houston Ballet were performed by the Houston dancers: the modern classic Company B with music by the Andrews Sisters and a world premiere, In the Beginning, Taylor's light-hearted treatment of the Book of Genesis.
Houston Ballet's Artistic Director Ben Stevenson and Paul Taylor have long shared a mutual fondness and admiration. But commissioning art can be a tricky business, and Taylor and Stevenson have worked out a model symbiotic agreement, treading the fine line between artistic integrity and commercial success. This is how it works: Houston Ballet commissions a work by Taylor, and the choreographer creates it on his own company. The ballet is then set on Houston Ballet, which premieres the work and retains the rights to it for at least three years, during which time the Taylor company can perform it, as well.
Taylor describes the latest commission, In the Beginning, making its Houston debut on May 22nd, as "sort of a Grandma Moses, American primitive version of the Creation." Recognizing that Houston's dancers were well versed in story ballets, he deliberately went for a narrative approach. "Telling stories has been out of style for quite awhile now, and I love the idea of being out of step," said Taylor with his characteristic wit.
The tale that Taylor spins is by no means a literal reenactment of Genesis, but a whimsical take with liberal poetic license. In the beginning, Jehovah is a tough deity, threatening spiritual law and order; in the end, he turns into a forgiving softie. Adam and Eve chase apples and stumble onto carnal knowledge, producing a new litter of Adams and Eves. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, scored for wind instruments rather than the usual large chorus and orchestra, provides the finely knit musical fabric for this choreographic sampler, adding to the miniaturized charm of the dance. Jennifer Tipton's ingenious lighting shines its heavenly luminosity on Santo Loquasto's faux-Biblical décor.
While Taylor's choreography possesses a fluidity, musicality, and coordination accessible to ballet-trained dancers, it places real demands on Houston's dancers. "Taylor's style is such a challenge for classical dancers," said Stevenson. "I personally feel that it is very important for classically based dancers in their development as artists to break away and take on another style. In fact, I've often worked with Houston Ballet's classical dancers to achieve the same sort of freedom in their work that the artists of Paul Taylor Company have."
Susan McGuire, a former Taylor dancer who now stages his works around the world, is well prepared for the stylistic gap. "Paul recognizes the differences in training, in styles, and he knows from the outset that the piece is obviously going to look different on a ballet company," said McGuire. "But, that's okay with him. I would imagine in the back of his mind he is thinking that they are certainly not going to be able to throw themselves around the way his own dancers do."
Houston Ballet's Julie Gumbinner and Ian Casady, In the Beginning's prototype Adam and Eve, had to quickly absorb from McGuire the Taylor idiosyncrasies in stance, temperament, and partnering. "The hardest thing was working with the legs turned in‹it's difficult to balance on one leg like that," said Casady, who like most ballet dancers naturally turns his legs outward from the hips. "I haven't danced many ballets that have humor," said Gumbinner, who was surprised by the opening night audience's laughter. Also tough to assimilate were the grounded quality of the movement‹more so than the aerial work in Company B ‹ and the powerful use of the back.
When Taylor came to Houston to coach the dancers for two days, he concentrated on simple movements‹like walking. "We were doing a very determined walk," said Gumbinner. "Paul told us to do it more like children. He said, 'You're trying too hard. If you're not enjoying it, why do it?'"
For twelve years, Houston audiences have delighted in watching Taylor's work danced by their indigenous ballet troupe. Hopefully, In the Beginning is far from the end of the Taylor-Houston partnership.