Paul Taylor’s new work, Promethean Fire, set to a combined score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s tocatta and fugue in D minor; prelude in E flat; and choral prelude is in many ways an entirely classical ballet piece in spite of the Martha Graham-inspired vocabulary and contemporary costumes. The spliced-together Bach music effectually presents a formally satisfying dance composition in three movements: the first and third performed by a sixteen-member corps, joined together in the second by a pas de deux.
Like the neo-classic dance pieces of the mid-twentieth century, Promethean Fire is primarily about the music. Its inventiveness is grounded, first, in its freedom from what Igor Stravinsky termed “ the tyranny of the beat.” Sustained, slow musical passages are often expressed through rapid, complex choreography. Some of this movement is, in fact, so fast that the kaleidoscopic lines and patterns, pattern upon pattern, blur in the fluidity of movement. This fluidity is sustained throughout the composition. There are no pauses for photo moments, although arrangements of lines for such tableaux are there for the viewer, in plenty. A second element in the originality of this piece is its calling upon a spirit of celebration, a joy in its own humanity, without ever collapsing into sentimentality. The pas de deux, performed by Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola, is poignant but impersonal, like Bach’s score.
This classicism in form is mirrored in the theme. Prometheus, the peer of Zeus who brought fire to mankind, is distinguished from other Greek gods by his sympathies, which were always with humanity. The program notes offer a quotation from William Shakespeare as a subtext to the title: “…fire that can thy light relume.” This line comes from Act IV of the play, Othello, and is delivered by the title character, who soliloquizes on his intended murder of Desdemona: “If I quench thee, thou flaming minister… I know not where is that Promethean heat/ That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again.” Fire that comes from the gods ignites and illuminates, in brevity, our human light.
On opening night, June 6, 2002, the program included two of Paul Taylor’s consummate works, Cloven Kingdom (1976) and The Word (1998). The former juxtaposes passages of soaring, extravagant beauty with self-parodying, barnyard gestures. The latter uses the shadows of the dancers in motion to show the grand span of the human condition, in time, and the similarity between elements of the unrecorded past and western culture that we consider endemic to the 20th century. Both pieces are distinguished by the effective use of taped music, making it a necessary element of the composition rather than a regrettable fact of arts funding in the United States.