San Francisco: Feldman vs. Pattering Feet

Roddy Schrock
Roddy Schrock
Photo by Hideki Kubota

Communication through movement is a mysterious proposition. Dance always seems so fragile. Theater, with its grand excess of spoken dialogue, is an exercise in obtuse explication compared to the ascetic limitations of movement. One piece in particular drew me to the Paul Taylor Dance Company performance on March 31: Banquet of Vultures, a new work choreographed by Taylor receiving its West Coast premiere.

Taylor’s decision to use Morton Feldman’s Oboe and Orchestra to accompany the piece was part of the attraction. I wanted to find out how this work could be tied to his style of choreography or if the music would even be audible over the noisy patter of the dancers moving around the stage. In answer to the last question, it was, but barely. As to the first question, it was a success as well. Feldman’s music weaved its way around the dancers, maintaining its own presence as much as the performers on stage. Taylor’s interplay between physical and musical gesture was subtle, evocative, and convincing.

At first I took issue with Taylor seeming to have superficially chosen this piece only for its ability to evoke a sense of dread, but finally decided to just go with it, accepting his proposition. I’ve never found Feldman’s music disquieting at all, and frequently tire of hearing commentary linking contemporary composition to horror film soundtracks, but in this case, for whatever reason, it worked. Maybe Taylor is lucky, or maybe he is of that rare branch of choreography that is able to successfully marry pre-composed music with new dance. The Feldman piece, while not remotely dark on its own, is malleable, able to bend into a shape that compliments the stark commentary of Taylor’s piece. But why music so often has to be the compromised part in dance is another issue altogether.

In the piece, a frightening young man dressed in a black suit with a red tie, the kind worn only by politicians or real estate moguls, plays the role of some kind of American Psycho/Dear Leader character commanding a panoply of tightly synchronized soldiers, dressed in full military drag. The oboe with its long, sharp, subtly shifting lines provides a focal point to a dark stage with slithering characters holding candles. As time passes, the soldiers die, the Dear Leader jumps for joy in turn, and toward the end, vividly stabs a candle-bearing lone survivor of his indiscriminate war, eventually carrying her offstage.

Throughout the piece, while dramatic in its imagery, I couldn’t help but wish that there were more depth to the commentary, taking us somewhere other than the mindset of how horrible war is and how horrified we should be at the current wars happening around us. And there is one moment when the red tie-wearing presidential character dances solo, in convulsive movements, pummeling himself on the floor, forcing the audience to question whether politicians are capable of guilt or self-loathing when faced with the responsibility of their actions. This moment, this question offered to the audience, took the piece beyond the realm of cliché and into the refreshing area of direct cultural commentary. But I still wish that this approach were more the norm in the work of such populist-leaning artists as Paul Taylor. Banquet of Vultures is ultimately the V for Vendetta for the NPR-listening, Volvo driving, “supporters of the arts” crowd.

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Roddy Schrock is a sound artist who digitally mines everyday sound for the profound and canvasses the glitzy, rough edges of pop for its articulate immediacy. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, The Hague, New York, and San Francisco, with performances in the Czech Republic, Holland, Japan, and North America. He is also an educator, teaching summer workshops on SuperCollider software at STEIM (Netherlands).