Helluva Town!

“New York, New York, it’s a helluva town! The Bronx is up and the Battery down…”

Ooops. “Helluva” was not deemed acceptable and Bernstein ended up writing that tune to the word “Wonderful” instead. Having just been back to the Big Apple after an absence of seven years, I’m pretty sure “Helluva” is the right word. It is wonderful, up to a point; but also noisy, to a degree that makes life under the flight path seem extraordinarily peaceful; crazy, to the point that even most of the cats are ‘barking’; energising to the spirit, emptying to the bank account (seduction by tourist discount in Macy’s and hidden taxes in restaurants), and so full-on that a long weekend felt like a fortnight. As for the bagels…! That’s not “Wonderful.” That’s “Helluva”.

While the LPO was busy taking Greenvale by storm, I sloped off to see some dance, because New York is still dance capital of the world. The Paul Taylor Dance Company is currently celebrating PT’s 80th birthday in a theatre off Broadway named City Center and decorated like a Turkish bath. I’ve always loved the PTCD but missed their recent visit to London. On Saturday I caught one of their wacky, contrasty triple bills and wallowed in their athletic style, their fabulous bounciness and versatility, the humour, pathos and human quality that’s light years away from the classic New York ‘greyhound’ look that used to be encouraged over at New York City Ballet by Balanchine.

They opened with Public Domain, which dates from 1968: to a soundtrack of collaged bleeding chunks, some chunkier than others (the biggest being, amazingly enough, Sibelius 7) the dancers plus a couple of footballs evoked fleeting patterns and personalities that zinged in and out in a battery of images almost like the ones that assail you in the streets of Manhattan. The end – the closing bars of Sibelius 5 – has the dancers scurrying hilariously from tableau to tableau and could have come straight out of a Monty Python spoof. Its ideas are very much of its time; but the whole is still effective enough to prove itself timeless.

Brief Encounters, performed by dancers in black underwear to Debussy’s Children’s Corner, was having its New York premiere that night. It’s a take on promiscuity, a world in which narcissism and superficial sex is favoured instead of lasting trust and closeness; whirring across and around the stage, the dancers ogle each other, seducing and abandoning each other, picking up and chucking away handmirrors, and in the final Cakewalk fleeting their way through all manner of crazy gone-in-a-flash relationships; and it’s given perspective by one duet for two of the boys who manhandle each other through a variety of slow-motion lifts requiring immense trust and care, from which the pair finally exits hand in hand. It’s hard to reconcile the images of the Children’s Corner with material in which an elephant’s lullaby and suchlike are light years away, but sophistication and sensuality are never too far from Debussy and Taylor has certainly homed in on this. 

And finally PT’s ever-popular Handel hit, Airs (photo above) – as gorgeous, energetic and ethereal as can be, perhaps the closest he has come to Balanchine’s abstract evocations of music in movement. There’s unashamed virtuosity for its own sake in an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better duo, and generally an emphasis on delicate off-centre balances, precariously dazzling holds and lifts and so many jumps that sometimes the dancers seem to touch down only for long enough to take off again. The airiness of Airs is a joy from start to finish, and by the way I loved the soundtrack: a selection of Handel from concerti grossi movements to the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, played as it must have been in 1978, as if it is still music, not just a historical point to be proved. Wish they could use live music, though. 

One notable contrast between this evening and an equivalent in Britain: in NY the programmes are given out free and consist mostly of lists of sponsors, benefactors etc, plus adverts, plus a few pages about the company and the dancers, and I couldn’t find any note of what recordings were used for the Handel. At, for instance, the Royal Ballet, you’d fork out £5 and read interesting stuff about history. Same planet, different worlds.

I missed the Mendelssohn that night for the PTDC, and also missed the LPO’s Avery Fisher concert because it was full, but it’s been quite a trip. I met up with family, agent and friends old and new, including someone I hadn’t seen since college, and could probably have spent another few weeks on much more of the same, if it’s possible for a mere holidaying Brit to sustain the NY pace of existence any longer without keeling right over.

Jet lag now. Hope some of the above makes sense.

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