"Company B" at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre | Program Notes

"Company B" at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

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It would be easy to market renowned choreographer Paul Taylor's 1991 work as a nostalgia piece. "Company B" is, after all, a high-energy, swing-inflected tour de force, with dancers costumed to suggest the 1940s, and moving entirely to songs by the Andrews Sisters.

Indeed, a nostalgia piece is what Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's ads for the show suggested. The most prominent billboard image featured a sassy, full-skirted young woman surrounded by three smitten lads.

So even audiences who knew that references to World War II figured into the show might have been excused a little cognitive dissonance: The soundtrack's jumping brass and Taylor's jiving footwork are the platter for a jarring and fairly unambiguous antiwar message.

On one level, Taylor straightforwardly constrasts homefront gaiety with the solemnity of young men going into battle. Behind the whirling of dancers Erin Halloran and Luca Sbrizzi to "Pennsylvania Polka," the soldiers appeared upstage as silhouettes against a gray screen -- marching; shouldering arms; taking a sniper's position.

Some of the 10 numbers didn't reference war at all. But the sprightly "Rum and Coca-Cola" was staged as a vivacious vignette of Yankee servicemen orbiting a Caribbean prostitute. "There Will Never Be Another You" was danced as a last dance with a partner lost to battle.

Most striking, even subversive, was Taylor's take on "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)," surely the show's best-known tune. Soloist Christopher Budzynski was all waggles and leaps, salutes and fanfare -- right up until the song's final note, which became a rifle shot that dropped him dead at the lip of the stage. Blackout. Next tune.

Indeed, the 45-minute dance smoothly and frequently incorporated the sight of young men dropping suddenly in heaps to the stage floor. It all gave a new connotation to the slashes of bright red that were the dancers' belts and hair ribbons, accenting otherwise muted costumes.

"Company B," which debuted the year of Gulf War I, has always been recognized as antiwar. But we're now in the era of perpetual war overseas and (if the ever-glossier TV ads are to be believed) perpetual amusement at home. Perhaps now more than ever, this show's canny schizophrenia leaves behind audience members hungry for a little Greatest Generation comfort food.

"That was cute," said one of the young women seated behind me, at intermission. (Unlike Taylor, who's 79, she probably wasn't old enough to remember Gulf I, let alone WWII.)

PBT itself seemed a little unsure how to pitch "Company B." In his program notes, for instance, artistic director Terrence S. Orr called the show "a romp thorugh the 40s that includes a look at how many ways the devastation of war takes its tolls."

While "romps" are, typically, devoid of devastation, it's undeniable that many of the dancers in "Company B" romp. And in fact, a New York Times review of a 1995 performance of the work, staged by Taylor's own Paul Taylor Dance Company, noted that the show was greeted by "laughter and cheers."

"Company B" was part of the PBT's Feb. 12-14 program, which also included Dwight Roden's stunning "Ave Maria Pas de Deux," Marius Petipa's "Don Quixote's Pas de Deux," and Twyla Tharp's epic "In the Upper Room." 

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