Stage

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Stage
By Heather Wisner, Michael Scott Moore
More Than Meets the Eye

Paul Taylor Dance Company. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), through April 18. Call 392-4400.

Wistful lovers, B-movie villains, religious fanatics, bare-chested strongmen, and a slithery green creature crowded onstage in two programs performed by the Paul Taylor dancers during the first week of their residency. While some of Taylor's dances might seem straightforward at first, though, his scenes and characters are so thoroughly layered with meaning (not to mention dance history) that the viewer is left to peel away at them like an onion. Given such utterly captivating work, we don't mind at all.

Take Esplanade, the finale to Program B. It's a pretty dance, the kind that choreographers use to send audiences away happy, but it's by no means slight. Taylor has taken ostensibly simple steps -- running, hopping, sliding baseball-like to the floor -- and arranged them in complex patterns that spill joyfully over Bach violin concertos. The mood of the piece shifts from sunny to meditative and back again as Taylor explores how much can be done within this basic choreographic framework.

A lot, as it turns out. Romantic pairings are languid, even poignant, as partners stroke a cheek here and gently pull themselves away there. Group sections, on the other hand, are buoyant, with loopy orbiting turns and sudden stops and directional changes. Lisa Viola, a force to be reckoned with throughout this program, dances one of the most memorable phrases, a slow circular jog that picks up speed with the music and ends as she flings herself fearlessly into her partner's waiting arms. Suddenly, the stage is full of couples running and flinging themselves into one another's arms. Their reckless enthusiasm makes you want to cheer, and many viewers did.

Arden Court is another piece that is outwardly charming and inwardly complicated. What begins as a men's show of athletic one-upmanship evolves into tricky pas de deux with the company's women, and ultimately, a rewiring of ballet technique. It's thrilling from the outset, when the men tumble onstage in a flurry of free-swinging arms, split dives, and curious cartwheel turns over each other's bare backs. These are the merry men of Shakespeare's As You Like It, and their pastoral antics are only partially subdued by the arrival of the women, who wrap their legs around the men's torsos and burrow under their working legs like little animals. The fireworks briefly resume in a men's pas de deux marked by great feats of agility. By Arden Court's conclusion, it looks like we're seeing ballet, and we are, but then again, we're not. Jutting hips knock positions off center and the diagonal angles of efface are stretched and pulled like so much taffy. It's a satisfying collusion of classical and modern technique that ends in a rich cascade of movement.

"For our God is a consuming fire," the biblical phrase from Hebrews 12.29, prefaces The Word, setting us up for religious subtext, although the piece could be read as a comment on corporate culture as well. The ominous thrum of cello in David Israel's commissioned score casts an eerie spell, and costumer Santo Loquasto dresses all the dancers theatrically in identical white shirts, ties, and dark-blue knickers -- all, that is, except for Viola, who materializes amid the crowd in a green unitard. There is plenty of chest-beating and self-flagellation within the group, broken by jerky, turned-in steps and a hypnotic running-jump sequence done in a circle. Jennifer Tipton's effective bare-bones lighting, a scrim lit up at the bottom by a single white neon tube, dwarfs the dancers with their own shadows, which loom over the proceedings in unnerving fashion. Some of the symbolism is overt, like the group of dancers who suddenly fall to the floor in the shape of a cross, and some of it is subtle. What are we to make of Viola? She whips herself feverishly through this faceless bunch like a fury, all hair and limbs, then slithers around them like a serpent. She might be keeping them in line; then again, she might be tempting them to break ranks.

Enigmatic, too, is Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), although a little background here helps: When the original Sacre premiered in Paris in 1935, viewers were scandalized by Nijinsky's vision of pagan fertility rites in which a girl is sacrificed. Taylor has remade the piece into a black-and-white cartoon, a Hollywood B-movie, and a ballet parody all at once. Even the music comes in rehearsal form: Rather than the full Stravinsky score, we get a two-piano adaptation, played live here by concert pianists Julie Steinberg and Betty Woo. The dance is full of archetypes from each genre -- a stern Russian ballet master with a high fur hat, a gangster and his moll, a gang of bad guys. Just when we think we have the routine down, Taylor alters our perception like a fun-house mirror, interrupting a Keystone Kops chase with a dance rehearsal, and sending a knife-wielding villain into the serenity of White Picket Fence Land, where a brawl gets out of hand and takes us by surprise.

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