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Juilliard Dance

Published: November 25, 2015
Category: review

Twyla Tharp's 50th: The Irony Is Passé

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK–Twyla Tharp’s 50th anniversary tour made its final stop at the former New York State Theater, with a set of new works (seen Nov. 17) as performed by 13 fleet-footed, unique, virtuoso dancers. The experience totaled two hours, but it felt like more. The seven males and six females—some who have worked with Tharp for decades, others for just a year—fully embodied her ballet-meets-bawdy-vaudeville style (as executed in warp speed). Sadly, they could not transcend the ambiguity of Tharp’s new dances, which spoke neither to the past nor present. Preludes and Fugues (set to a recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier) and Yowzie (set to various 1920s jazz tunes, including those of “Fats” Waller and Jelly Roll Morton) came across as anemic versions of Tharp’s earlier masterworks, such as Brahms Paganini (1980) and Eight Jelly Rolls (1974).

In the late 1970s and ‘80s, Tharp broke ballet’s glass ceiling, becoming the most notable female choreographer of her generation to refuse being treated as a second-class citizen (by receiving lower fees). Her more than 160-plus works have been admired for their irony and their polyglot fusion of “high” (ballet) and “low” (dance flavored with the black bottom, lindy hop, and twist). Back in the era of “Tricky” Dick Nixon, it was still considered uncouth for a concert dancer to finish a perfectly executed triple pirouette with a hip bump and a drunken stagger. Tharp, who blurred these boundaries with delicious flippancy, seemed to be making two points with her unique style: I am a ballet-trained dancer, who comfortably inhabits the historic vocabulary and elegant ethos of the European opera house, but I’m also American, so I’m going to bump and grind à la Little Richard and Josephine Baker. This defiant, “just watch me” stance made attendance at a Tharp evening an au courant experience. With her patois in hand, she went on to create for ballet companies, Broadway, and Hollywood. For substantial periods of time, Tharp also toured her own dance company. Today, her style no longer reads as defiant, and herein lays the central problem of her new ballets: they fail to be crazy cool.

Tharp’s anniversary program began with Preludes and Fugues, as introduced by a trumpet fanfare, composed and performed live by John Zorn. In a flood of golden light (care of James Ingalls), the full cast bounded through space, each doing his or her own thing, but also enthusiastically interacting with each other through unison jumps, turns, and snatches of partnering. Preludes is presentational; it caters to the predicable precincts of today’s conservative dance ethos. Nonetheless, the dancers galvanized their own, whimsical moments. For example, when Reed Tankersley transitioned from a duet to a group section to a solo, he appeared like a dolphin joyfully maneuvering through a tempest of continuous waves. While Tankersley is compact and muscular, Kaitlyn Gilliland (a former New York City Ballet corps member marked for stardom) is tall, sinewy and game for movement that sends her careening off balance.

It is no accident that Tharp chooses dancers whose height, limb, and age differences evoke a pluralistic community of dancer-athletes. Tharp is known for breaking through ballet’s historic strictures (which include the notion of who can be a noble dancer—a tall, lean person—and a character dancer—a short, muscular one). That said, Tharp is attracted to the ballet tradition of working with classical music. In the case of Preludes and Fugues, she cleverly responds to the complexity and speed of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Unfortunately, she rarely finds an architectural analogy to its orderly universe.

Yowzie, the second work on the program, was preceded by another trumpet fanfare. Zorn’s live music was soothing compared to the loud, abrasive and incessant dance work that followed. The most notable aspect of Yowzie was Loquasto’s screamingly colorful costumes, which evoked the 1920s (feathered hats for the women and porkpies for the men), the 1980s (leg warmers, bandanas, bare midriffs), and Broadway musicals (hit-me-in-the eye lighting changes). Of all the cast, Rika Okamoto best embodied the loose-limbed Tharp. Okamoto’s drunk dance was noteworthy for its uncanny impersonation of the choreographer’s own performance style in her masterwork Eight Jelly Rolls (1971). Despite this well-wrought translation, Okamoto’s dancing lost steam: not even Charlie Chaplin could endure 40 minutes of hyperbolic clowning. Then there was John Selya miming a crap game. With his Herculean shoulders, he looked like a bouncer but scampered with the nimbleness of a street urchin. Meanwhile, the voluptuous mover Savannah Lowery was rendered into a high-kicking temptress. Yowzie eventually devolves into a raucous party—for show. The total effect is that of semi-violent cartoon that overstays its welcome.


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