Big Bertha
  • Photo by Paul B. Goode
  • Big Bertha

American Dance Festival
Through July 21

The Paul Taylor Dance Company took the stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center last night for their annual visit to the American Dance Festival, which concludes this evening. The mainstay company brought out a crowd expecting to see virtuosic performances from the principal dancers, and Michael Trusnovec, Amy Young and Michelle Fleet didn’t disappoint them.

The real star, however, was the flawed program.

A bit long with four pieces and two intermissions—and lengthened more by a curtain mishap that required repairs—the program spanned a half-century of Taylor’s choreography; from the 1962 frolic Aureole to this year’s insectoid fantasy Gossamer Gallants. It could have cohered, though, woven together by interrogations, illustrations and blissful avoidances of the sexual codes and morays of each dance’s particular era. Except for one catastrophic piece, that is.

The balletic Aureole, a piece revived from ADF’s Connecticut College era, opened the evening. Costumed as though they’d stepped out of a Maxfield Parrish painting, two women in white flanked Trusnovec cradling Young in his arms. After dancing the brief equivalent of an unfurling banner, the pair of women scampered off, indicating their decorative role in the piece. In Aureole, only the two male dancers have agency.

Francisco Graciano plays a kind of social dandy, thumbing imaginary lapels and cantering around the stage with the trio of women in admiring pursuit. Trusnovec, however, is the statuesque, ideal loner. His solo declares this succinctly. Making straight lines with outstretched arms and pointed legs that recall Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Trusnovec falters into curvatures only once at the beginning of the solo, betraying his loneliness. But he maintains his stoic poise thereafter.

Fleet’s later solo echoes Trusnovec’s, though comprised of feminine curves. After she and the others take turns being twirled by Graciano in a formal, mannered courtship dance, Trusnovec reprises his cradling of Young. They take a slow, muscular duet.

After he releases her, Trusnovec—who could be mistaken for a weak-side linebacker—executes a breathtaking set of kicks while leaping up and down on one foot. The DPAC is truly a cavernous space but the audience around me leaned back in their seats as, with his fifth and sixth kicks, he neared the front of the stage. And we were in row M.

The full cast celebrates his capital-R Romantic triumph with flying, diagonal entrances and exits to the finale of Handel’s Concerti Grossi.

As the curtain rose for the five dancers to receive their applause, there was a loud thump sound and about half of one side of it vanished, so a pause became an intermission. But the DPAC crew hastily mended the stage’s missing tooth.

Then the curtain rose on Big Bertha, a watershed Taylor work dating to 1970. Set to calliope and band machine music and featuring Robert Kleinendorst as a hermaphroditic dominatrix bandleader made gigantic by red leather high-heeled boots, Big Bertha is hardcore in every sense of the word. And, following Aureole, it viciously rips through the older dance’s lyrical courtship rituals and patriarchal gender roles so that the awful guts of raw animal desire can burst out. This would be David Lynch’s favorite Paul Taylor work.

The set features a huge circus contraption, pipe organs sticking out the top and Barnum and Bailey lettering trumpeting a five-cent charge, all lit with white bulbs like those infesting antique carousels. Big Bertha, the bandleader, stands upon a little spangled dais. To an excruciating metallic scratching noise, she removes a baton from out of her throat with a robotic motion. Yeah, there won’t be a happy ending to this one.

A quintessential 1950s family enters—mom, dad, and bobbysoxer daughter—out for a fun night at the fair. Dad deposits a coin into Big Bertha to activate her, and the daughter does a lively mélange of period dance moves as her parents watch. Mom tries to join in the fun but trips over her own feet and prissily withdraws into her husband’s consolation.

It’s difficult to tell whether the bandleader is merely going through its animatronic sequence or exerting puppeteer control over the family. Before the time allotment of the coin expires, causing the bandleader to slump and prompting Dad to fish in his pocket for another nickel, Big Bertha appears to hypnotize the family into unison movement.

With the second coin, Bertha assumes control. Dad performs a jerky, drunkard’s dance to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” His baseball swings gradually become aggressive sexual advances toward his daughter and, after he assuages his wife’s anxiety over this, a vicious smack across Mom’s face.

The dance descends into increasingly horrific scenes of incest and abuse during which Bertha wields her baton in a variety of lewd ways, the wife strips to become a burlesque harlot and the husband takes his daughter around back to emerge tattered, dragging her bloody, limp body around. Explosive sparks mark the final tableaux to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Judging by the audience’s audible discomfort, this demonstrative degradation of the family unit is as startling today as it was more than 40 years ago. Big Bertha’s exaggeration of the romantic yet rigidly hetero-normative power relationships underlying Aureole erupts toward its logical endpoints. The man, tumescent with power, must possess any woman who presents herself as able. Regardless of whether the daughter’s aware that her fun dance is a mating ritual, she must innocently perform it and forcibly surrender to whomever she attracts. And the mother must play the whore in order to deal with it all, seeing that sexuality is the only agency in this skewed dynamic. It’s Lynch’s “unspeakable horror behind the white picket fence,” sixteen years before Blue Velvet.

Taylor’s self-implication through Big Bertha’s role as choreographer provides the dance’s most fascinating aspect. He turns the critique against himself, pointing out the darkness inherent in his mechanical, controlling position. He frightens himself. Taylor demonstrates that the moment mechanical routines are no longer viewed as such they can become monstrous pantomimes.

Unfortunately the raw, layered messages of Big Bertha were decisively erased by the back half of the program. In a way, the piece that followed the intermission—Gossamer Gallants, which the company premiered this year—takes animal desire literally. The dancers are costumed as black fruit flies (males) and virid lacewings (females).

Gossamer Gallants

But the piece, with its sitcom shallowness and slapstick choreography, wholly lacks any kind of critical substance. I scrutinized Gossamer Gallants for irony, but I saw vacuous fluff. It was the Amendment One dance on the docket.

“Rough and rowdy flyboys go gaga for snooty lacewings. Hilarious hijinks ensue.” This could be the tagline for Gossamer Gallants in the TV Guide schedule.

The daycare costumes made the dance seem more like an elementary school play. Six flies enter and competitively solo in a display of one-upsmanship, lolling about the schoolyard while waiting their turns. They hold their hands beside their heads like antennae, jabbing them sharply. Then the flies drool and tumble into a feverish heap when two lacewings strut across the stage, shaking their hips outrageously.

Was this choreography good, at least? I’m not sure. It was athletic. But just like the kids in those elementary school plays, the performers were applauded just for hamming it up onstage and looking adorable in their costumes. It was never remotely subtle. Taylor was hell-bent on milking every comical flourish in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride score.

Five lacewings eventually flit in to dance with the six flies, leaving one poor fly always unpaired—aww, make a sad face! The frigid female insects roll their eyes and incessantly look up at the ceiling as the males fawn and follow them around, even serving as their steeds during a particularly cowboy-ish musical sequence.

Eventually the women defensively stalk the men, their hands formed into claws in front of them much like a zombie dance sequence in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. The men are terrified, tumbling over each other to get away. The piece ends with the women literally walking all over the men to deliver a Rockettes kick line.

Gossamer Gallants was a stunning turnaround from the force and intelligence of Big Bertha, tantamount to a refutation of it. I have to admit that I had trouble paying attention to Piazzolla Caldera (1997), the final dance of the evening, because I was preoccupied flipping through every critical frame I could think of to see if I was missing something with the bugs. No dice. Call Orkin.

And that’s too bad. Full of tango machismo and bravado, Piazzolla Caldera explicated its own set of sexual codes in a spare, deep-red set by Santo Loquasto beneath a dim amber constellation of hanging lights by Jennifer Tipton. Heated and sexy, the passions played out at an interesting angle as one of the six pairs of dancers was all-male. This pair wasn’t the focus of the choreography, however, merely part of the ensemble.

Partner dances manifest themselves out of the group, with degrees of sultriness, but no overarching narrative is achieved, if it was ever intended. The most memorable sequences were a male duet in which the dancers hold each other, one upside-down, and cartwheel together, as well as a steamy duet between Trusnovec and Fleet.

But the program was broken by that point. Piazzolla Caldera would have been a perfect fit after Big Bertha, presenting a rigid normative system that doesn’t inevitably veer into horror porn but instead displays beauty, skill, and gendered agency. Piazzolla Caldera is self-conscious as pantomime, and therefore a means to a metaphorically expressive end, rather than an end to be taken seriously in itself. And though the tango is a way-hetero dance, Taylor’s uneven gender casting points that out in an appealingly frank way.

Gossamer Gallants should have been relegated to the children’s matinee show. Or better yet, the choreographer’s notebook.