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Classic Themes, Contemporary Dancers

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company came to town this past weekend, bringing both new works and old. While expectations were particularly high for the newest dance piece entitled Promethean Fire, it was the almost 30-year old choreography of a work entitled Runes that was most impressive.

Runes is a dance set to a solo piano score. The music sounds modern, and the dancing looks modern; but the combined effect-along with the minimal lighting-feels ancient, almost prehistorical. Watching Runes often seems like watching a pagan ritual-a sensation only accentuated by the set design, which consists solely of a dark stage and a small, glowing moon in the background.

Runes is a haunting piece, one the showcases Paul Taylor-s talents as both a choreographer of modern dance, as well as an impresario. His dancers are all earthy and very human-Taylor seems to avoid performers who have the perfect features and forms of classical ballet dancers. Instead he chooses dancers who look normal, but who can still perform with incredible agility and grace. This makes his work so immediate, so easy to identify with-instead of making dance about perfection, Taylor seems to want dance to be about the simple beauty of human movement.

For those who like modern dance-but also like a story to follow-this weekend is your last chance to see a unique theatrical work blending drama, dance, and eastern mythology. Ramayana 2K4 was seen here in Los Angeles last year, before heading east for a successful run at La MaMa, Manhattan-s famous experimental venue. Now it-s back, but for only a short run before it again decamps for New York and an off-Broadway run.

Ramayana 2K4 means -The Path of Rama, 2004- as it is a 21st century telling of a story first written down 2,000 years ago by the Indian poet Valmiki. The tale of Rama and Sita is one of the central myths of Hindu culture so you-ve probably seen or heard it in some form-but that won-t prepare you for what-s on stage in Ramayana 2K4. Part music video, part Peking Opera, and yes, part vegas stage show, Ramayana 2K4 combines music, visuals, and dance from almost every form of entertainment known to man. At times you feel as if you haven-t come to the theater, but rather have stepped into to a new techno-dance club, or other times it feels like you-ve wandered onto the set of a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle.

But don-t expect perfection in modern dance, as Ramayana 2K4 really is more about acrobatics than choreography. Also, don-t go looking for classical acting either, as Valmiki-s epic is told almost entirely by a recorded voice-over track which the actors act out in pantomime. Both of these elements are sometimes awkward, but also are often engaging-as is the live tabla playing, and most of all, the large-scale shadow plays that truly capture the wonder of mythic storytelling.

And finally for those who like their classical myths performed without electronic music, there is London-s world-famous Royal Ballet. The renowned company is here in the states for this summer-s Frederick Ashton centennial in New York City.

Ashton-s name is almost synonymous with the Royal Ballet-as is his lyrical and unostentatious choreography, which set the style for what would become perhaps the most influential company of the last 60 years. True ballet buffs may have to go to Lincoln Center, as 11 of his works are on display as part of the Ashton Celebration; but luckily, his Cinderella will be performed by the Royal Ballet here in Southern California, which itself is cause for celebration.

The Royal Ballet comes to the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts next week, with Ashton-s Cinderella running from Monday through Thursday. Ramayana 2K4 concludes its run this weekend with the final performance this Saturday night at 8pm at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW

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