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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
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
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,
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"
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
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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