The Paul Taylor Dance Co. kicked off the dance component of Spoleto Festival USA last night at the Gaillard Auditorium. Most of the audience was brought to their feet at the end of the Promethean Fire, which many believe is the choreographer’s response to 9/11. It is proof that dance can be the true visceral product of emotional energy. The stunning architecture of this piece certainly is about the chaos of tragedy and the order that hope restores.

Taylor is a master at moving bodies around the stage. The dancers roll, scurry, run, and turn leaps, creating formations resembling buildings or crowds of people in different states of activity. After a dramatic pile-up of bodies enhanced by the beautiful light design of Jennifer Tipton, a duet emerges from the wreckage with the intriguing dancers Liza Viola and Michael Trusnovec. They share a dance showing harmony and dissonance to the majestic sounds of Bach. A spiritual quality resounds throughout the dance, brought about by the power of the movement and the intensity of the performers.

In 3 Epitaphs, choreographed in 1956 and the oldest piece in his repertory, Taylor shows his taste for the absurd. Dancers in costumes designed by Robert Rauschenberg slump zombie-like around the stage to the thumping rhythms of an old New Orleans brass band playing music used at both weddings and funerals. The distorted figures brought chuckles from some of the audience and were an example of the humor that Taylor uses which may show the darker sides of things. It allowed the audience to loosen up or to leave, which some did, as the movement resembled old drunk men or the aging achy body we all will experience. Taylor’s humor worked better here than in Oh, You Kid, danced to arrangements from the ragtime era.

Strangely costumed in turn-of-the-century bathing suits, the dancers in Oh, You Kid! showed their theatrical abilities in several slapstick moments which again made you wonder, was Taylor trying to be funny or show the ridicule of difficult subject matter like the Ku Klux Klan, dysfunctional families, or female exploitation? The comic caricatures in disturbing scenarios didn’t seem meaty enough nor were the romantic duets meaningful enough to feel fully satisfying.

Aureole is a signature work for Taylor, and it indeed depicts the essential joy of movement that he is known for. With long leaps and arms which reach and swing, fast footwork, and quick changes of direction, the movement actually spills across the stage. Danced to Handel, the piece is classical in nature but holds onto the individualism of the modern idiom. Orion Duckstein was the picture of athletic grace in an adagio solo where he investigates balance and space. There is simple beauty and motion which still can be appreciated by audiences 44 years after Aureole’s first performance.

Paul Taylor is one of the most important living American dance makers today. Last night’s program showed the breadth of Taylor’s career that for 50 years has brought lyrical wit and intelligence to the world of modern dance. His dancers continue to be beautiful vehicles to take his work further into the 21st century with style and skill.

PAUL TAYLOR DANCE COMPANY • Spoleto Festival USA • $10-$80 • May 27 at 7 p.m.; May 28 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. • 2 hours • Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St. • 579-3100

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