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Flash Review, 9-30: Tharp Redux
Twyla Marches on, Through Her Dancers

By Tehreema Mitha
Copyright 2000 Tehreema Mitha

WASHINGTON -- I love it when the movement of a dance begins just a fraction of a second before the music takes off! Almost as if to ensure that the audience should not think that it is the music that carries the dance; and when you are choreographing to "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K.581" (played on tape) and you are Twyla Tharp, I can very easily see that happening! Thus began last evening at the Kennedy Center.

There was an instant rush of color with the three men on stage dressed in white pants with two-toned shirts slashed at the back (designed by Santo Zielinski), and fun cummerbunds. The costumes are a reflection of the dance that they are a part of: based on classical lines, yet with that quirky element, that naughty grin that peeks out every now and then. Would anyone call this neo-classical ballet? (I recently heard several dance critics arguing about whether Twyla Tharp's work should be called "modern" or "post-modern.")

The Allegro danced by Keith Roberts, John Selya and Benjamin Bowman seems at first glance to be an unremarkable piece with good dancing and pure ballet technique. The difference from a classical ballet opening, however, is that for much of the variation the three are dancing their own combinations and are not necessarily moving as an ensemble in the ballet sense. I felt my eyes glaze over as there was nothing to focus on in particular. This feeling continued somewhat into the Larghetto, with the introduction of the female dancers. With the two pairs -- Ashley Tuttle with Selya and Elizabeth Parkinson with Roberts -- the focus is indeed on partnering. However, the mood really begins to change with the third section, the Minuetto, when Tuttle is accompanied by both Selya and Bowman. The scene is playful, with the two men at times holding her aloft in a split and then letting her rotate between their arms to come back up again as if she were a moving stick between two rods! At other times she climbs up the body of one while leaning against the other to lean back and then be transferred to the other in a beautiful back pose, sometimes being taken around the back of one and then onto that of the other. There is a continuous chain of movement, at times as if both the men are playing with her with a deep understanding of each other and a sense of sharing. And at other times there is a sense of rivalry, and a choice, a decision, being made by her about whom to go with. None of this is intense, or serious. It is all light and playful though the dancing is obviously demanding and precise.

Enter Roberts and Parkinson, moving fast. Though dancing apart at times, they are often entwined. He at one time moves slowly towards the wing, circling all the while as she turns around his body, climbing on him and yet taken around his torso by him.

It has been said about traditional ballet, and particularly about Balanchine's earlier work, that ballet was created for the ballerina and the men become mere props to facilitate lifts. While none can say that about Twyla Tharp's choreography, she does seem to revert to giving the men a lot of the supporting element, with a great number of lifts and passes in this piece. It made me think of a remark from her autobiography about the making of "The Fugue," and the entry of the first male dancer, Kenneth Rinker, into what had until then been a company of just women: "Before, I had worried that including men in our group would automatically bring up the issue of cliche partnering, its sexual implications and limitations." But, "I did not automatically assume that the guy would be doing all the lifts, or even that there would be lifts." Later, when she set a piece on Mikhail Baryshnikov, they both pledged that he would not take off into the air even once during the entire piece (and for their efforts they were roundly booed by the audience!). What I am trying to get at here is that Twyla Tharp in this dance seems to set herself a different challenge, almost as if after working with ballet companies for so many recent years, she is trying to stay more within the realm of classical dance and work within it's rules rather than provoke the structure as a whole. Partnering therefore is utilized to the fullest, yet the sexual implications are avoided on the whole.

What unsettled me in this dance, however, was the sense that the choreographer's signature humorous (and bordering on the naughty) gestures and combinations seem almost thrown into a flow that is otherwise in another direction. The awareness of the audience as there is in ballet is clearly there; the exits and entrances, all very much in keeping with the traditional. Then suddenly there is an episode, sometimes amusing for the audience but not so displayed by the dancers; at other times it is acknowledged and briefly shared by the dancers with each other, and then it suddenly evaporates. It does not blend in, say the way it all does in "Push Comes to Shove" where the humor is carried on throughout the story and enhances each character and the play of the story.

Another point reminded me of a Korean modern dance company that recently visited Washington (and which would not have received a very favorable review in general from me, had I written one). As the first dance opened and the dancers crossed the stage with traditional Korean dance steps, slow, slow, exquisitely slow, I thought to myself that this is what in a way modern dance in the West has lost. This ability to sometimes dance with so little motion, yet be fully in control of the flow (not withstanding Eiko and Koma!). In 'Mozart'' sometimes the music made me long for a break from the continuous movement and to be allowed to luxuriate in a simple soft gesture, or extension.

In the last section, 'Tema con Variazioni,' the same dancers in the same combinations appear, but are more often seen on stage together. The pace picks up for the climax.

At intermission I had time to look around at the audience and was again reminded about the difference in the audience that goes to see ballet and modern dance. This time, no gowns, no dripping diamonds, no hats with nets veiling the face, no tuxedos. What I would really like to know is whether the Kennedy Center has ever done a survey of the crowd that fills its hall for different performances. I found it amazing the number of "older" people who were there this evening, and not so many young women and couples as I have seen for ballet. This I did not expect at all.

Tharp's second presentation, "Surfer at the River Styx," was a wonderful foil to her first dance. I think there is no doubt that Donald Knaack's music is the sort of score that best shows off Tharp's particular movement. Played on instruments made from recycled junk (Japanese hub-caps included), and performed in collaboration with amplification and recorded sound by Coda composer David Kahne, it is throbbing, pulsating, energetic and exciting. The dancing had us sitting at the edges of our seats, my limbs itching to move and muscles tensing in preparation!

Explaining the dance later, Tharp told us that it was based on Greek mythology, and if I remember rightly it is the legend of Dionysis, as complex as they can get. Hearing her speak I was reminded of her remarks about the "ferocious and brave porcelain dragon dogs that guard the Zen temples" being the image for the two women originally cast in "In the Upper Room." I am not at all sure that the audience can follow the mind process, the story, or the images that Tharp uses to base her dances on; I for one cannot. But whatever it is that inspires her to create such dances certainly inspires a wonderful display of energy, wit and atmosphere!

We see two soloists used to their maximum in this dance. One, the surfer, danced by Selya; and the other, Roberts. These solos are not only remarkably demanding in stamina, but also easily challenge any training in classical ballet with the amount of spins, pirouettes and jetes that are woven into them. These two soloists, the two different types of souls in this world, one with the arrogance and gusto to ride the waves, and the other who is not too sure he can or should face this challenge, are continuously challenged by what appear to be black, angry waves, these represented by two women and two men dressed in brief body-hugging shorts and, on the women, short tops as well.

Parkinson gave herself to this dance with a fierce spirit and seemed to throw her body into the movement, making it completely a part of her. Tuttle (substituting for Francie Huber, who was unable to perform due to injury) was the more remarkable of the two in the first dance with a finesse that made her stand out.

In 'Surfer' there is no attempt to balance the classical with Tharp's own language. Tharp goes all out to enjoy herself, no holds barred. She indulges herself through her dancers in having them shaking the body, twisting, turning, kicking, leaping and jumping in strong amazingly non-stop movement. Yet here this continued frenzied activity does not distract. At times the focus shifts from the individuals to the ensemble and then shifts back, but at no point is it boring or meaningless despite that there is a plot to it all. One is so taken with the sheer power of the piece! And here there is no separation between the strength of the women and the men. There is a lot of dangerous play. Split-second timing is required to have the dance progress smoothly, echoing the sense of that that comes through in the Golden section. Normally I would scorn the audience reaction that oohs and ahs at hi-jinks, as if dance was to be judged like gymnastics or a circus doing tricks. But Twyla Tharp's tricks are imbued with a potent force and direction and cannot be dismissed as so much more of the same.

I could have done without the ending of this piece, though. The sudden shift of what almost can be called style, slow movement yes, but almost the same lifting and sharing that is remarked upon in the first dance, to show the rider who is able to go with the flow, just does not seem a part of the rest.

Several years ago, when I attended a discussion with Tharp when she was to premiere "In the Upper Room," an audience member asked if she thought her choreography would change when she was no longer able to dance herself. Although Tharp ridiculed the questioner and the audience along with her laughed unkindly at the young lady, I felt that it was a valid and practical question. I am glad that Tharp is again holding together a company of her own, even if with some "borrowed" dancers from other companies. To continue her work into the many many coming years, she needs young dancers from the new generation who have thoroughly imbibed her spirit, her very personalized grammar and idioms, so that she may continue to direct them as if they were but extensions of herself!

 

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