By Jane Rosenberg
There is no choreographer who draws meaning from the simplest gestures as well as the masterful Twyla Tharp. No one gets more out of a flexed foot, the cock of a head, or the pitch of a shoulder. It is the way she achieves these seemingly effortless gestures that is at the root of her genius. Her works, as exemplified by her newest dances, Preludes and Fugues and Yowzie – created for her fiftieth anniversary tour – exist in that special space between classical ballet and contemporary movement. They combine the refinement of ballet with a modern dance vocabulary in a way that seems perennially fresh, spontaneous, and uncluttered.
In these two new works, as in all her creations, her ability to surprise and delight is ever present. One might attribute it to her use of contrast. She is a master of opposites. There is tension and release – tension as defined by the rigor of classical ballet steps, release as the body relaxing into the jazzy gestures of everyday life. It is this insertion of the everyday into the balletic language that creates a sense of wonder and emphasizes our common humanity. Though a dancer demonstrates technical mastery within the structure of a Tharp ballet, he or she can also shrug it off and look like the rest of us –shaking knees, dangling arms, shimmying torsos. It’s as if an old, aluminum coffee pot is suddenly put on a lavish dinner table set in sterling silver and appears to belong there.
The first Tharp ballet I ever saw drew audible intakes of breath from the audience for precisely this reason. Mikhail Barishnikov, dancing with American Ballet Theatre in the nineteen-seventies, was astonishing audiences in classical roles with his prodigious technique, then, in 1976, he performed in Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. His body moved with the ease of Fred Astaire. Deadpan but hilarious, he was as human as Charlie Chaplin, and suddenly he was one of us.
The Wallis Annenberg’s Bram Goldsmith Theater proves an excellent and intimate venue for Tharp’s marvelous dancers – John Selya, Rika Okamoto, Matthew Dibble, Ron Todorowski, Daniel Baker, and Amy Ruggiero – to name only half of this cohesive troupe.
It takes dancers of immense skill and musicality to pull off a work by Twyla Tharp. There is an overarching lyrical sweep to the movements, despite sudden juxtapositions, which can only be achieved by really listening to the score. And Tharp chooses her music wisely. After a brief introductory Fanfare with music by the witty John Zorn, we are immersed in Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier – excerpts of which comprise the score for Preludes and Fugues. Tharp briefly states in the program: “Simply put, Preludes and Fugues is the world as it ought to be, Yowzie as it is. The Fanfares celebrate both.”
Awash in Bach’s music, with elegant and muted costumes by Santo Loquasto and subtle lighting by James Ingalls, we enter “the world as it ought to be” in the company of a delightful and superbly talented group of dancers. The dances combine virtuosity with a kind of impish glee. Nothing feels forced. There are no unnecessary contortions or excesses. What we have is Tharp’s understanding of the human body and how it works, much like a visual artist who understands anatomy, so necessary if one is to abstract form to create new layers of meaning.
As for the movements: In one section, couples dance, positioned in ballroom style partnerships, dipping and sweeping in circles. In a staccato section, a couple hops up and down until the girl climbs onto the boy’s back like two children at play. It feels like one suspended giggle. In the background, another pair cavorts, playing a Tharp version of “flying angel.” Fouettés alternate with judo kicks, classic ballet exercises are interrupted by playful skipping, or, in one case, shaking and shimmying. Towards the end, holding hands in a circle dance, the dancers seem peaceful, as if they are simultaneously emitting a collective sigh of contentment.
Each ballet begins with a Fanfare. The Second Fanfare, also set to music by Zorn, is performed in front of red, translucent sheeting. With clever lighting by Ingalls, the dancers cross the stage, bobbing and darting, and creating a pattern of silhouettes in front of the drape – now and then they cross behind producing the effect of shadow puppets. Their silhouettes, with funny hats, spikey hair, and floppy clothes lead us expectantly into Yowzie and the zany world “as it is.”
Set to a compilation of jazz tunes arranged by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein, we open on a rollicking, but immensely human “drunken” pas-de-deux performed with uncanny brilliance by Rika Okamoto and Matthew Dibble. The cast is dressed in a mélange of comical costumes – a touch of tie-dyed American hippie, a bit of vaudevillian clown, a rift on haute couture, and an amalgam of what looks like Southeast Asian, Indian, and Mayan bits and pieces – creating a colorful parade of cartoon fashion designed by Loquasto. Also designed by Loquasto is a vivid, abstract painting, hung high and serving as an immense backdrop, much like a massive billboard with the feel of James Rosenquist.
As for the dancing, there are pratfalls, ragtime struts, slow motion sequences, bursts of jitterbugging, boxing thrusts, LSD tripping, flirting, vamping, abandonment and loss, and imaginative choreography as only Twyla Tharp can create. It’s all heart warming and glad making, even when we recognize the frailty of human existence within this circus of life. We feel the pleasure and pain of being alive. So take someone you love and head to the Wallis for one of the most exhilarating and poignant productions you’ll see all year.
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John Selya, Rika Okamoto, Matthew Dibble, Ron Todorowski, Daniel Baker, Amy Ruggiero, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp, Savannah Lowery, Reed Tankersley, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Eric Otto
Choreography: Twyla Tharp
Music: First Fanfare and Second Fanfare: John Zorn
Preludes and Fugues, Well Tempered Clavier: Johann Sebastian Bach
Yowzie: Henry Butler/Steven Bernstein
Sets and Costumes: Santo Loquasto
Lighting: James Ingalls
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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets. Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children