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Review, 7-31: Tharpasized
Call to the Oxymoronic
By Vanessa Manko
Copyright 2003 Vanessa Manko
NEW YORK -- For the
next two weeks, fans of Twyla Tharp have some options: they can
go see the choreographer's work paired up with Billy Joel's music
on Broadway in
"Movin' Out," or they can opt for the downtown route
and the Joyce, where Twyla Tharp Dance began a two week-run Monday.
I would go for the latter. The mixed program features four works
that show the choreographer's flair for the inventive and celebrate
her sometimes showy, signature movement style -- athletic, pedestrian,
"Known By Heart Duet"
is a wily duet set to Donald Knaack's "Junk Music" -- a series of
percussive "found" sounds to which Lynda Sing and Matthew Dibble,
clad in under-stated gray costumes by Santo Loquasto, compete with
each other in a playful game of one-upmanship. The dancing is slick
and quirky and the austere silver stage lighting interspersed with
some bold flashes helps to underscore the quick precision of the
movement. Working within the framework of the classical ballet pas
de deux -- an adagio, variations for the male and female leads,
and a coda -- Tharp experiments to an extent that distorts the ballet
vocabulary, adding a repeated slide into the fast footwork of the
variations. The movement is filled with lightning-quick changes
of direction often requiring Sing, for instance, to literally throw
herself into pirouettes with a force akin to that of a whirling
There is intricate,
perky pointe work, and steps en l'air are also exacting. At one
point Sing undertakes a little pointe shoe toe-tapping, while while
Dibble shows off some formidable jumping skills. It is demanding
dancing and requires some daring on the part of the dancers. As
one audience member within earshot remarked at Monday's opening,
"She makes these kids work!"
While the program is
comprised mostly of Tharp's later more glossy works, "The Fugue,"
created in 1970, grounded the evening in some early, back-to-the-basics
Tharp. The trio of Whitney Smiler, Jason McDole, and Dario Vaccaro
dance to the rhythm of their own feet. The floor is miked so we
can hear each deliberate footfall, shuffle, and scuff. They are
not tap dancing, but offering everyday movement, the running, falling,
and ball-changing one might observe on the street, Tharpasized into
dance. And Smiler, McDole, and Vaccaro perform this difficult exercise
with ease and nonchalance.
Set to Mark O'Connor's
sweeping "Call of the Mockingbird," "Westerly Round" is an homage
to the old American West. As the piece opens, four dancers clasp
hands and sashay in a circle. A spotlight shines down on the group
and the faded blue backdrop evokes an evening sky on the open frontier.
What ensues is some highly spirited dancing: grand jumps and acrobatic
feats, split leaps, basically a kind of hoe-down dancing brought
to a level of virtuosity. And as always, Tharp has upped the ante
with the ballet vocabulary, unfolding the prissy and proper steps
in exchange for frank and open dancing. Three men (McDole, Vaccaro,
and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges) cavort and compete with a gleeful hardiness,
performing repeated leaps and turns. They have a rambunctious playfulness
about them. But it is Emily Coates who delivers a superb performance
as the token girl cowboy, or prairie woman. With her long legs,
strawberry blond hair piled up on her head, and a broad smile, Coates
is commanding and bashful simultaneously, the flirt and the tomboy.
"Surfer on the River
Styx" is a more contemplative, moody piece. It's apocalyptic in
tone and highlights Neshyba-Hodges as a powerful, dexterous mover,
ferrying the dead across the River Styx. Scott Zielinski's chiaroscuro
lighting design helps invoke the work's mythic dimensions. A sense
of passage and traveling is embedded in the piece, in the angular
isolations and forward thrashing of the torso. There is also a two-dimensional
quality to the choreography, which features the dancers in continual
profile. The effect is that of a bas relief sculpture come to life.
Donald Knaack's foreboding score climaxes in a cacophony of screeching
as dancers move in an increasingly combative and aggressive style.
But it is the calm after the chaos that Tharp seems to want us to
remember here. For after the highly kinetic and sometimes cluttered
entourage of movement comes a serene conclusion in which Sing is
raised to levitate above her carriers, who are bathed in shadows.
As she is raised above them, she extends a leg and is maneuvered
into a split to sit still as an idol in the spotlight.
This evening of dance,
filled mostly with Tharp's later works, all showcase this choreographer's
propensity for a kind of oxymoronic movement, if there can be such
a thing. It's at once nonchalant and carefree, yet infused with
an athletic rigor. And while Tharp can get too showy at times, as
if she were continually winking at the audience to say "Watch what
I do with this," it's her dancers who add an extra panache and aplomb
to the dances. Twyla Tharp Dance continues through August 9 at the
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