This season's Dance Celebration opened at the Annenberg Center on Thursday with two Paul Taylor Dance Company favorites and a Philadelphia premiere made this year. Choreographies by Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, George Balanchine, or Lucinda Childs, to name but a few, will always be instantly recognizable. But Taylor, who worked with Cunningham and Graham early on, did not develop such a distinctive new dance vocabulary.
Instead, he hewed to a mid-to-late-20th-century modern dance idiom and took on social, religious, and sexual issues, skewering at will. For me, Taylor's best is Company B, in which he expertly juxtaposes the jauntiness of warmongering, the songs that feed it, and its primary product: death.
But what to make of this year's new piece, Phantasmagoria? Premiered at Wolf Trap (one of its commissioners) in July, it looks like a summer-camp follies. Taylor bases the fragmented, satirical work on Pieter Bruegel the Elder's earthy peasant painting The Wedding Dance. Then, as if to take us through the history and geography of dance, he introduces an Indian "Adam and Eve" garbed in 1940's stereotypical gaudy costuming wielding a cheesy bright green snake between them. Why go to a top costumer like Santo Loquasto, who got the Bruegel thing down to a T, then not follow through?
The music, by "anonymous Renaissance composers," was spiked with modern percussive sounds. An Irish step dancer, Michelle Fleet - whose feet matched her name - came clogging out to bagpipes; a Byzantine nun confiscated the snake and found a lewd use for it; a leperlike creature infects the others with St. Vitus' dance. This could have been a rollicking piece had the preliminaries been strong enough to support a real sendup with a clear through-line.
The last piece, Cloven Kingdom, was the program's most coherent; though made in 1976, it was not as dated-looking as the opener, 1981's Arden Court. Local dancegoers are familiar with Arden Court as performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet since 1983. This is the first time Taylor's company has done it here and they were, in comparison, not as sharp. It is a contemporary barefoot ballet, but I was reminded by former Pennsylvania Ballet dancer Alexei Borovik that that company does it in soft ballet slippers. By contrast, Taylor's barefoot dancers made awkward turns and at least once only barely avoided a collision.
Collisions were deliberate in Cloven Kingdom, as were awkward squats by the women in long, stretchy, elegant gowns, which seemed a snipe at Martha Graham technique. But here the troupe had found its footing, as the dancing - especially by the men as hounds in tuxes with tails, up on their hind legs with paws out, begging - was superb.