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Energy and Precision 

Paul Taylor Dance Company brings both horror and sweetness to UA Centennial Hall

Less than four weeks ago, Michael Trusnovec of the Paul Taylor Dance Company won the Bessie, the highest award a dancer can get.

At a ceremony in New York on Sept. 17, he was honored for "rendering a modern master's choreography with effortless grace, purity and dignity; for making roles from comical to terrifying all his own; and for being an electrifying yet humble presence."

But as a working dancer in one of the most highly regarded modern troupes, Trusnovec has had little time to savor the extravagant praise. He's been dancing ever since the ceremony, in New York, in Indiana and in multiple cities in Pennsylvania. This weekend, he'll be in Tucson, for a single concert by the company Saturday night at Centennial Hall.

"We're performing at Notre Dame tonight," he said cheerfully by phone from South Bend last week. And top dancers like Trusnovec and the rest of the Taylor troupe never stop rehearsing, either. Calling in the late afternoon, he explained, "Right now, I'm between a rehearsal and the show tonight. We often rehearse during the concert days."

Trusnovec's Bessie came after a year of delirious reviews from dance critics, particularly for his role in the brand-new Taylor work "Banquet of Vultures." A dark group dance that many see as a commentary on the war in Iraq, it will be a highlight of the Tucson program.

The piece has Trusnovec playing a supreme ruler in a power suit, dominating--and ultimately killing--the people crawling around him in Army fatigues, blindfolded and cowed. Somberly lit with candles on stage, the work is set to a 1950s score by Morton Feldman.

"It's a dark, disturbing, thoughtful work," Trusnovec said. "The critics relate it to politics, but for me, it's about power and the misuse of power. That's the sense I got from Paul. Like most of Paul's work, it's up to the audience--each person takes what they can. He tells us very little."

Still, Taylor, 76, who two years ago celebrated his troupe's 50th season, used movements that explicitly link Trusnovec's character to the Death figure in Kurt Joos' famous 1932 anti-war dance "The Green Table."

Like Joos' Death, Taylor's evil ruler "marches inexorably in place: toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel," critic Deborah Jowitt wrote last March in a rave review in The Village Voice. The "ruthless leader, brilliantly and horrifyingly danced by Michael Trusnovec ... twists and crouches, undulates and whirls--arms slashing, coat flapping. ... At one point, light shines down on Trusnovec, and he opens his arms to it. God is on his side. When he smites a person, that person falls."

The San Francisco Chronicle was equally awed, both by the choreography and by Trusnovec.

"It's the role of a lifetime, challenging and harrowing, demanding unremitting energy and precision," critic Janice Berman wrote. "Michael Trusnovec was superb."

The dancer has been working with Taylor almost his entire professional career. He grew up on Long Island, and started dancing at 6 in a local school, doing tap, jazz and dancing studio work. But by adolescence, when he attended a local high school for the performing arts, he was introduced to the work of the serious modern choreographers. He studied both Horton and Graham techniques, creating an aesthetic link to his future employer--Taylor was a dancer with Martha Graham early in his career.

Trusnovec got a scholarship to study at Southern Methodist University, which has a "great dance department," he said, "very well-rounded. They do all styles of dance." In fact, he noted, three SMU dance grads are now in the Taylor company.

In his senior year of college, Trusnovec danced in a re-creation of Taylor's classic 1975 work "Esplanade," and shortly after graduation got his first chance to dance for Taylor himself. When his diploma was just two weeks old, he auditioned for Taylor 2, the farm-team troupe, and was immediately accepted. Two years later, in 1998, he moved up to the full company, where he's been dancing ever since.

He's modest about his rapid success. "The timing was really good," he said.

In the Tucson concert, besides dancing the lead in "Banquet of Vultures," Trusnovec will tango in "Piazzolla Caldera." A group work from 1997, it's a take-off on the Argentine dance, set to the music of Astor Piazzolla. The development of the dance was chronicled in the documentary Dancemaker, an Oscar-nominated film that also aired on PBS.

"Paul steered away from traditional tango," Trusnovec said. "It's really beautifully constructed, in its movement patterns, its costumes, its lighting. It's one of the most difficult dances in Paul's repertory. For me, dancing it draws on my jazz dance background."

Seven men and five women from the 16-member troupe are in the dance. Taylor deliberately mismatched the couples, Trusnovec said. "They're purposefully uneven, so he could have leftovers and odd couplings."

A third dance on the program, "Airs," is the only one in which Trusnovec does not appear.

"It's a beautiful work, with lush dancing," he said. "It's full of classic Taylor shapes. It's very sweet, with an airy quality, hence the name."

Set to Handel's Concerti Grossi, Opus 3, the elegant "Air" is danced by three men and three women, who move in and out of a series of geometries, from circles to diagonals.

The gossamer "Airs" and the sensuous "Piazzolla Caldera" should help balance out the horrors of "Banquet of Vultures."

"It's a great program," Trusnovec said. "It's eclectic, classical and dark."

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