Choreographer Paul Taylor has never demonstrated any fondness for religion. But in his latest premiere, “In the Beginning,” he uses his satirical wit as the primary narrative voice for the book of Genesis. The ballet, which made its New York City debut with the Paul Taylor Dance Company at City Center on March 3 and will subsequently be seen on the troupe’s American tours, miniaturizes the parable of the Garden of Eden with distinct comic punctuation.
Taylor, 73, whom Time Magazine called “the reigning master of modern dance,” has been choreographing for 49 years and recently completed his 119th work.
In an interview with Time Out London dance editor Allen Robertson, Taylor explained why he chose to retell this story in a lighthearted fashion. “It’s a story dance with a recognizable plot. I consciously wanted there to be a narrative to it,” he said. “I didn’t invent this approach, of course, but telling stories has been out of style for quite awhile now and I love the idea of being out of step.” As for the tone of the piece, Taylor was looking for a quaint setting flexible enough to allow for a few pratfalls. “It’s sort of a Grandma Moses, American primitive version of the Creation,” he explained.
Taylor definitely met his goal of a naive, scaled-down version of the biblical beginnings with an indispensable touch of comic-book antics. “In the Beginning” uses Carl Orff’s famous musical composition “Carmina Burana” to supply the melodic and rhythmic mood. But instead of the usual bombastic orchestration with grandiose choral passages, Taylor chose a diminutive version of the score consisting of only 12 woodwind instruments. The result provides a whimsical backdrop for a hop, skip and jump through a slightly skewed Sunday-school version of Genesis.
Taylor depicts Jehovah as a tough deity of the law-and-order, good-cop variety. Dressed in black rabbinical robes, Jehovah (danced by Andy LeBeau) initiates creation by whirling authoritatively and angrily against Santo Loquasto’s set of a blue sphere with stars, luminously lit by designer Jennifer Tipton. Suddenly, Jehovah gives birth to Adam (Robert Kleinendorst) through his legs, while an apple simultaneously rolls across the stage into the wings. In the section titled “The Tree of Knowledge” — there is no snake in this version — Eve (Sylvia Nevjinsky) suddenly prances onstage brandishing the same apple and teases her partner by placing it on her abdomen while executing a backbend; more apples roll across the stage.
The ballet continues with a Lilith figure (Annmaria Mazzini) circling the stage in a frenzied, lustful solo. Then the plentiful propagation begins. Eve writhes wildly in gestation, as eight new adults — all dressed like Adam and Eve in their Old Testament-chic couture outfits (the men in ritual tzitzit-fringed garments and colorful Yemenite skullcaps, the women in tasteful kibbutz-wear) — shoot from Eve’s womb like kids on a theme-park water-slide. The fun ends when Jehovah stops the ensuing orgy, wagging his finger in retribution and banishing all to a barren, thorny desert. The choreographer turns it all back into a needlepoint sampler when a forgiving Jehovah, now dressed in white, blesses all, while flying doves grace the rainbow on the backdrop. The great flood is reduced to an unnecessary footnote.
Because Taylor has always sent cryptic signals through his choreography, it is hard to know precisely what he intends to communicate through “In the Beginning.” With his Janus-faced obsession with dark and light, good and evil, his satire often hides sharp teeth underneath its smiling façade. Previous works by Taylor have, in particular, skewered religious hypocrisy. “Speaking in Tongues,” choreographed in 1988, dissected the febrile Pentecostal practices of encouraging eruptive diabolical soliloquies during prayer services. And in his 1998 ballet “The Word,” a charismatic, demonic spirit haunted a group of brainwashed recruits, rendering them hysterical, then turning them into blank-faced automatons.
It is possible that Taylor intended “In the Beginning” to jab at the simple-mindedness of fundamentalist Christianity, particularly Christians who are oblivious to their religion’s ancient Jewish roots. It was, after all, choreographed and funded as a joint project with the Houston Ballet from George W. Bush’s backyard. It is also possible that, in his old age, Taylor has mellowed. His final vision of a strict, yet gracious and understanding deity seems sincere, despite the humor preceding it. As a humanist, Taylor’s fascination has always remained fixed on the behavior of human beings. If humans are made in the image of God, then perhaps he imagines that God can be conflicted as well.
Then again, maybe, as he claims, he just wanted to tell a good story. “In the Beginning” is a minor work by a major choreographer. Even though he stands as one of the living titans of American modern dance, Taylor has never eschewed entertainment in the name of art.