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Flash 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, and virtuosic.

"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 tornado.

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 Joyce.

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