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Getting a happy grasp of Paul Taylor's steps

Paul Taylor has always been a moody choreographer, in every sense, and his work swings from innocent lyricism to the darkly cynical. Both extremes were on last night's opening of a three-performance Boston run of The Paul Taylor Dance Company.

The harshest piece was the newest, "Dante Variations," premiered earlier this year. To Gyorgy Ligeti's "Musica ricercata" -- adapted for barrel organ, creating a score that wheezes and groans -- 10 dancers created a purgatory they couldn't leave. For a dancer, one of purgatory's most horrible punishments would be impeded movement, which was literally the case in this work where a strip of white cloth ties hands or legs together, or makes a blindfold. A woman with hands tied behind her back repeatedly jumps up and crashes to the floor on her knees, a visual ouch that makes the audience wince.

But there's the relief of occasional wit here, too, as one dancer tries to shake his fabric shackle from his ankle, and another, bound at the knees, falls to the floor in frustration and mobilizes herself by rolling offstage.

Periodically, dancers shake as if they're coming down with the plague and trying to escape their own skins. "Dante Variations" begins with all 10 performers forming a frieze in the shape of an elongated triangular pediment. Their bodies pulse, out of control. The dance that follows ends with the same frieze. The dancers seem stuck, even for eternity.

This was the bleakest of the three works on the program, bracketed by "Runes," the opening work, and "Mercuric Tidings," which closed the evening on such an obliviously happy note that it was hard to believe the same company had so despaired just minutes before.

"Runes" -- identified in the program as "secret writings for casting a spell" -- is ritualistic, in the same genre as Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Martha Graham's "Primitive Mysteries." The movement for the 11 dancers seems preordained rather than choreographed. It goes from spidery to serpentine, as if it came from a time before the code of human movement existed, and it has further whiffs of antiquity in gestures hinting at prehistoric cave-painting and Greek vases. The various sections are unified more by a moon that rises as the dance progresses than by the abrasive piano score by Gerald Busby. The dance ends inconclusively and abruptly. It's shut down -- perhaps so recorded history could begin.

All the negative energy in the first two works did an about-face in the last. Set to excerpts from Schubert's first two symphonies, "Mercuric Tidings" had the same signature Taylorisms as the other works: the bent-legged leap; the crescent moon arms; the skittish little jumps; the restlessness. Only here the antsiness made the dancers seem like champagne bottles eager to be uncorked.

The works on this program spanned more than 25 years, but that's only half the story of the company, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Between last night's performance and tonight's, works from each of the five decades are being danced. Taylor's reputation has evolved from that of maverick to master, yet it seems the real change isn't in him, but in us, as we've come closer to grasping what he's up to.

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