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Paul Taylor's `Brandenburgs' tests conventional ballet form

The Paul Taylor Dance Company opened a four-week season of repertory at City Center in a program that featured the first of two new works by this modern dance choreographer. ``Brandenburgs,'' to the first two movements of the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto of Bach and the complete Third, closed the evening that began with ``Esplanade,'' an earlier dance also based on Bach. Taylor is a natural choreographer of baroque music. His innate dedication to form means that he always respects the musical structure, he doesn't just use it as a counting device. But he never seems to fall into mere illustration or overembellishment. Taylor's movement vocabulary is quite simple, another factor that makes for transparency. In ``Esplanade'' the basic unit is the walking step, which, with a couple of conversational gestures, gets extended rhythmically and spatially until a whole new language of wayward virtuosity and feelings is created before our eyes.

``Brandenburgs'' is even more formal and refined than ``Esplanade,'' but what saves it from mere prettiness is Taylor's sense of the unexpected. He can always be depended on to upset our equanimity somehow, with distorted movement, role reversals, misadventures. His purest, most harmonious dance universe can go out of control without warning.

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The dance opens with a silhouetted pose. The lights quickly go up on three women and a man, molded into a gracious grouping that might have originated in a Romantic ballet print, with a five-man corps de ballet framing them.

Taylor seems to be setting up a typical ballet situation - the three dancing goddesses with their cavalier - and updating it by replacing the traditional female ensemble with bare-chested male coryph'es. He follows through on this idea quite faithfully, with solos for all the women, Susan McGuire, Cathy McCann, and Kate Johnson, and the principal man, Christopher Gillis, and enough formation leaping and posing to show off the corps, too.

Taylor is experimenting here with a couple of things he hasn't done before. For one thing, he's never embraced the idea of a ballet that preserves the traditional hierarchy of stars-vs.-corps quite so thoroughly. On the classical stage, this division originally represented royalty and its hirelings, and it continues in effect as a means of stratifying the dancers in a company and standardizing choreographic pattern.

Paul Taylor has been more democratic and more imaginative in structuring his work - all 20 of his present dancers are listed in the program in the same size type, and in his choreography he's distributed prominent dancing roles liberally among them. I think ``Brandenburgs'' is the first Taylor dance that so blatantly sets dancers apart from each other by their technical achievements.

If ``Brandenburgs'' is an experiment with conventional ballet form, Taylor brings it off expertly, with interesting ways of weaving the two sets of dancers together. After the women's introductions - McGuire revolves slowly on one leg while curving the rest of her body in various directions, McCann does a more lively and flirtatious solo, And Johnson twirls and jumps with her customary lightning reversals - Gillis leads the corps in a sequence where they leap across the stage in tandem, and do enough other things so we get to see them individually.

The women have a set of longer variations based on renvers'e (backward) turns, each particularizing them in her own way. At the end of this, the dance itself reverses. Gillis enters, and, as he faces the women across the space, I get an immediate image of Balanchine's ``Apollo.'' Perhaps any dance situation where a man faces three women, all dressed white, is going to recall that work, but Taylor goes on to have Gillis partner all three, supporting them in an unfolding series of close, rounded poses.

This isn't Taylor's first homage to ``Apollo,'' but the reference served here to convey the whole dance through history, from the 19th-century premise to Balanchine's modern classicism, and of course, via Taylor's modern movement, into the present time.

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Gillis then does a solo in place, extending his body in weighty gestures through space, and the others return for a Balanchinian ending, with small groups crisscrossing the stage in huge, fast counterpoint and collecting briefly in unison, the ``stars'' in front, before they recapitulate the opening pose for the final curtain. During the bows, everyone got flowers, with pink ribbons for the women and blue for the men.

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