A political event inserts itself into an artistic event

Audience for Paul Taylor Dance Company program contends with vice president’s motorcade

Paul Taylor Dance Company has been a guest of the Sarasota Ballet for performances in recent years. Image courtesy Sarasota Ballet

Ten, 11, 12 motorcycles whizzed by as I sat behind the wheel of my car. I watched and counted their flashing red-and-blue lights as they sped by on the way to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

I kept counting as the motorcycles were followed by the flashing lights of patrol cars, and then SUVs, and even a medical vehicle that was part of the procession, until finally the barriers were lifted.

The extravagant motorcade was not announcing a Royal visit. Instead, it was carrying Vice President Mike Pence from a fundraiser on Longboat Key to the plane waiting to take him back to Washington.

I was on my way to the FSU Center for the Performing Arts to see the visiting Paul Taylor Dance Company in a performance sponsored by the Sarasota Ballet Company. My usual 20-minute drive had been turned into a static hour and a half behind the wheel of my car, even though I had left my house an hour and a half before curtain time. However, I did arrive just in time, but with many others also caught in this quagmire, the performance was delayed for 15 minutes.

Political events had been injected into an artistic endeavor whose producers had had little notice to prepare; those events would in some way influence the experience.

Paul Taylor, the choreographer whom Martha Graham had called modern dances’ bad boy, often cast a wary eye on human behavior. In Cloven Kingdom, the first ballet of the evening, choreographed in 1976 and set to the Baroque music of Corelli, he took a sly look at conventional manners, contrasting the soft, graceful movement of the women with jumpy, crass behavior of powerful men dressed in traditional suits. Yes, it is a simplistic interpretation of the “message” that there is a hidden animal nature in humans that exerts power over the niceties of society. But the ballet has a wry take on the subject, and as the company joins in a long conga line — reminiscent of a children’s game — I for one had forgotten my earlier annoyance with the extravagant motorcade.

There is a wide range to Paul Taylor’s artistic vision. In fact, a film highlights a variety of his 64 years of work as a choreographer — or as a dance maker, as he often referred to himself before his death in the summer of 2018. The film gave the audience an opportunity to experience the breadth of his legacy and to understand how he earned many awards as he traveled the globe with his company. Whatever the subject — dogs, a rehearsal, war, for just a few examples — his choreography has always been demanding and athletic while depending upon the music and the costumes to add to the emotional impact of a piece.

This current 12-member company of talented dancers handles whatever fast-paced, challenging choreography — overhead lifts, sliding into cartwheels and nonstop frantic, perpetual movementthat Taylor has created over the years.

Paul Taylor began making dances in 1954 while he was still a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. There are plans for his company to continue; it is on a memorial tour, which might explain why the program I saw included ballets (Cloven Kingdom and Polaris) that were choreographed in 1976, along with Syzgy, which dates to 1987.

An associate of Taylor, Donald York, provided the scores for both Polaris and Syzygy. York’s pulsating, percussive music contributed to the feeling of sameness, or a lack of balance, to the evening’s program.

Polaris is set in a large, steel, open cube with the dancers inside at first; the dance is in two parts. Watching the performance, I thought the dance explored confinement versus freedom, as the dancers left the cube and flitted around the stage. However, from notes in the program, I learned that the second part is exactly the same as Part 1, with a difference in the cast, the music and the lighting. The purpose of having a Part 1 and a Part 2 is for the audience to be aware of the details of a particular performance.

I had not checked the program notes until after the performance was over, but initially I found the second part more powerful, probably because of added intensity in the dancers’ approach to the movement echoed in a darker score.

The idea of space travel had roots in science fiction, but it is a matter of modern reality. Paul Taylor must have found some connection to those facts in 1987 when he choreographed Syzygy, which was described in the playbill as having to do with celestial bodies in a gravitational system. Santo Loquasto’s spiffy costumes and Taylor’s nonstop, squiggly choreography — marked by frenetic energy — summed up the strange mood of the evening. This oddly named ballet featured a flood of acrobatic, intense, talented dancers amazing the audience with their physicality but without creating a link to emotion.

Next time, perhaps, the company will perform a program with a mix of stories and music chosen from Taylor’s large repertoire.

And perhaps, next time, a helicopter instead of a motorcade might make life easier for an audience on its way to a performance.