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Paul Taylor at 81: Still relentlessly inventive

In this undated image released by Paul Taylor Dance Company, dancers perform a passionate tango-inflected dance with furious turns in "Piazzola Caldera," at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York.
In this undated image released by Paul Taylor Dance Company, dancers perform a passionate tango-inflected dance with furious turns in "Piazzola Caldera," at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York.
Paul Taylor Dance Company, Paul B. Goode, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Let's forget that he's 81 years old and one of the indisputable giants of 20th-century dance. Choreographer Paul Taylor is also like that brilliant kid in class, the kid who dazzles you with his genius one day, leaves you shaking your head in confusion the next, and then dazzles yet again.

Happily, the dazzling overwhelmed the confusing during Taylor's three-week season that ended Sunday, a season impressive both for its scope — 22 works were performed — and its new venue: the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.

It's staggering to think that Taylor has been making dances since the mid-1950s, that he has more than 130 pieces to his name, and that he keeps churning out at least two new ones a year (this year, there were three), at an age when many would be sitting by a pool with a well-deserved cocktail.

One must admire his prolific nature, even while wondering, with so many wonderful choices, why he needs to bother with something like "House of Joy," a brief and head-scratching new piece about a brothel and its "shady ladies" that clearly needs more work before it makes any sense. Performed on Sunday, it seemed like a sketch for something else, or merely the beginnings of a sketch — in any case, not a complete work.

But the other three dances it appeared with were all winners in their own way, and a perfect example of why we need to appreciate Taylor's strengths rather than focus on his oddities.

Those strengths are especially apparent in the kooky and much-loved "Cloven Kingdom" (1976), a portion of which even made it to the East Room of the White House in 2010, at a dance performance hosted by Michelle Obama.

The piece displays many of Taylor's talents: His deliciously fertile imagination, his desire to have his dancers deliver a philosophical message, and his bent for mixing the sophisticated with the bestial — in this case, men in tuxedoes dancing to Baroque music suddenly becoming four-legged animals, prowling to a driving drum beat. Women, too, dance daintily in evening wear, then suddenly turn up with bizarre metallic headgear one might see on "The Jetsons."

On Sunday, "Cloven Kingdom" also displayed the virtuosity of Taylor's dancers, and one of the very best was Michael Trusnovec, a Taylor veteran who has an extraordinary sense of purpose and commitment to his every move. His work was also key to the impact of the deeply disturbing "Big Bertha," a 1970 piece that is just plain scary.

If you haven't seen this dance, revived this season after a number of years, you might first have a smile on your face as you're greeted with a colorful carnival scene, and a wholesome family — Mom, Dad and daughter — out for a day at the fun fair.

That smile would soon disappear, and for good. Big Bertha, a robotic carnival creature, turns out to be evil, and under her influence the father succumbs to his most bestial urges. Rape and incest, anyone? Death, perhaps? It's tough to watch, but fascinating.

As always, the choice of music plays an important role — here, it comes from the St. Louis Melody Museum collection of band machines. (Alas, all music at the Taylor performances is taped; the company can't afford live music.)

The program ended with a crowd-pleaser: the tango-inflected "Piazzola Caldera," with its furious turns and flourishes of passion. More mainstream than many Taylor dances, it nonetheless brought down the house and gave a rousing finish to the season.

Will the Taylor company be returning to Lincoln Center? Looks like it — Taylor himself is said to be thrilled with the new venue (the company has danced in the past at New York City Center), and his executive director, John Tomlinson, says that pending board approval, the plan is to return next year for three weeks in March.

Tomlinson also said in an interview that the projected audience this season was exceeded by nearly 40 percent — good news, and not just for the company. Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham are gone, but Taylor is a living pillar of modern dance, and the fact that he's still creating, thriving and pulling in crowds should make all dance fans happy.