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Flash Review, 2-22: Tharp's New Deuce Troupe
They Just Don't Make 'em Like They Used to

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2001 Rosa Mei

There's been much fuss about Twyla Tharp's new company as well as its New York premiere, seen Tuesday at the Joyce Theater...and with good reason. In April, the Tharp company moves into its first permanent home in a 6,500 square foot converted Civil War-era church near the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Kudos to Harvey Lichtenstein, instrumental in the whole deal.) Additionally, Tharp is finally hunkering down with a new full-time company after disbanding her own in 1988 to freelance for companies such as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. Lots to celebrate. What's disappointing is that the new work leaves me longing for old school Twyla, and for the days of Sara Rudner, Tom Rawe and Shelley Washington, and of "The Fugue" and "Nine Sinatra Songs."

What I love about Tharp, particularly in her work from the '70s and '80s, is her ability to create structured chaos on stage. The bodies appear to spill out of nowhere. The layers are so organically woven together, it's like watching a freak occurrence of nature. At her best, Tharp is a brilliant architect, able to build layers of macrostructure and microaesthetic. The quirky shoulder rolls, the head ticks, the finger flicks graft seamlessly onto legs of razor precision. The steel blades slice and dice, step ball change and maneuver through triple counterpoint with the ease of Joe crossing the street. Watching Tharp classics such as "Golden Section" and "In the Upper Room" could bring joy and wisdom to the masses. In my humble opinion.

Then there are the dancers. Tharp loves her dancers, all technical wizards. In a sense, she is the epitome of the dancer's choreographer. She doesn't simply create work to be performed. She creates work to challenge her performers. Keith Roberts, a member of her new company, has said, "Twyla Tharp Dance is an adventure that satisfies my soul.... Twyla is giving us the opportunity of taking everything we've learned and being free with it. We've been able to rediscover the feeling of why we love dance."

The makeup of Tharp's new company differs a bit from her original dance troupe. The new dancers (new is probably the wrong term since a number of them have worked with her for many years, some over a decade, but they are a new ensemble) hail from companies such as ABT, the Joffrey and NYCB. The new group, which includes Elizabeth Parkinson, Ashley Tuttle, Benjamin Bowman, Alexander Brady, Keith Roberts and John Selya, consists of beautifully trained ballet dancers who have dared to dive into Tharp territory. Their specialties: line, grace, power, turns, jumps, and strong partnering work. Their weaknesses: running, falling to the ground, swiveling the hips, and flinging the body off center.

Perhaps Tharp's earlier dancers weren't as clean in their lines, perhaps they didn't remain airborne for quite as many seconds, but, damn, could they run and fall. When, for example, Shelley Washington ran across the stage, she didn't look like a dancer prancing, she looked like Flo Jo. To this day, Sara Rudner remains one of my favorite dancers of all time. She is so innately able to feel the vibe of a movement and fix her gaze on 25 different points in space, you can't help but stare. She makes a simple triplet walk across the floor look like the finest thing since sliced bread. And Tom Rawe -- part human, part cheetah.

What struck me most about the performance of Tharp's new works, "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K.581" and "Surfer at the River Styx," wasn't that her current dancers aren't as good as her dancers of days past. Technically speaking, they are. But I do think that the ability to fall and roll, to drop your weight and run like you mean it, and to jiggle and fling your body off center without losing your center, are all techniques. They're less about position and alignment than about the use of momentum and about understanding all the transitional elements that constitute a movement. In that sense, the current group of ballet-trained dancers fall just short of Tharp's ideal of the complete "cross-over" dancer.

Regarding this "cross-over" notion, Tharp has said a true "crossover" dancer is one who "could genuinely work as comfortably on the so-called modern techniques as on the classical techniques, both of which, by the way, are complete misnomers, but we all know what we try to mean by those words.... In other words, they're authentic."

In discussing her work on "The Golden Section," a seminal piece from 1983, she has described it as "an outburst of energy.... It doesn't have to be funneled, controlled or held in place." It was precisely this ability to make her choreography convey these outbursts of energy and her radical, non-linear view of structure, that made Tharp such an iconoclast in the early days.

Her new works make me wonder if Tharp's high regard for classical technique and classically trained dancers has muffled her taste for experimentation. True, there is a time for "Tank Dive." There is a time for "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K.581." But is this a reactionary response to a revolutionary siren? "K.581" is an utterly pretty piece. Its clean form and cheery complexion bring to mind Paul Taylor's lyrical works, specifically "Aureole" and "Arden Court": an abundance of balances, lift, lilt, hitch kick and flexed feet with arms raised in Vs overhead. The simple trio gives way to group play and whimsical cavorting. A dancer tosses another and she ends up in his arms a la "Esplanade." Don't mean to belabor the point, but most of this we have seen before, and with a clearer center and epilogue. The man sitting next to me mumbled to his companion, "I'd rather see Jerome Robbins -- very traditional, but with something extra..."

"Surfer at the River Styx" is a much more complex piece, mining the legend of Euripides's "The Bacchae" for soul and narrative. Donald Knaack's rich score provides a broad emotional landscape with a mix of ambient mood and frantic percussion. In "The Bacchae," Pentheus, a proud king who disrespects Dionysis, is torn apart by the god's female worshippers. As the Pentheus character, Keith Roberts is proud, regal and resilient. His counterpart, the man who surrenders to nature, played by John Selya, literally glides across the stage, boxing and kicking his way to enlightenment. The remaining dancers perform double duty as creatures in the underworld and the elements of nature that move through it. The dancers are given virtuostic moves to execute. Double tours en l'air and pirouettes ad infinitum. But somehow, the dancers don't ever really resemble animals or creatures or elements. Something's lacking in the grit, and I don't really see the carnality of the actions, although they are hinted at through gestures.

I am grateful, though, for Tharp's dedication to making this new company work, to building infrastructure at a time when it almost seems like an impossibility in the dance world Stateside. I can't help it though. I miss the messy. And I miss Flo Jo.

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