Has there ever been a dance career with more ups and downs than Twyla Tharp’s? Or with more varied ambitions? Or larger ambition? She danced for Paul Taylor while still at Barnard College, then in 1965 presented her first experimental pieces usually to no music, and performed in a park or a museum or wherever. We’ve had the early triumphs made for her own dancers: Sue’s Leg and The Fugue and Eight Jelly Rolls . We’ve had the breakthrough works for the Joffrey, Deuce Coupe and As Time Goes By . We’ve had the glory of Push Comes to Shove for Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theater. And that only takes us to 1976! Let’s not forget the unfortunate musical of Singin’ in the Rain or the nervous dance elements in the films Hair and Ragtime and Amadeus . Or the charming Sinatra pieces. Or Brahms/Handel , the peculiar collaboration with Jerome Robbins. Or the powerful In the Upper Room. Or the meretricious but highly profitable Twyla-Misha tour. Last year gave us Ms. Tharp at her bloated worst, in City Ballet’s Beethoven’s Seventh , then a happy comeback, for A.B.T., with Brahms-Haydn Variations . And I’ve left out 100-odd other works of every size and description, to say nothing of her own wonderful dancing that quirky, pugnacious all-American look that so easily, it seemed, contained modern and folk and jazz and pop and ballet. It’s easy to be omnivorous, but not so easy to digest everything you’ve consumed so greedily and emerge with something of your own.
When she began, the battle between “ballet” and “modern dance” was still raging. Who would have predicted that this battle would be neither won nor lost, but that the two factions would slowly merge? (Israelis and Arabs, please take note.) More than anyone else, Twyla Tharp is responsible for this hybridization: Her loyalty to her stubbornly individual modernisms runs parallel to her lifelong love affair with ballet. In Push these two impulses operated separately, in opposition or at least in humorous contradiction, which may be why the ballet looks a little dated today; the joke is no longer relevant. Working for ballet companies around the world, Ms. Tharp has striven to absorb the classical language into her own language, recognizing, perhaps, that personal styles, however effective, die with their creators, but that classicism survives.
Now, a quarter of a century after Push , she has formed a new company, found a “permanent” home in Brooklyn and announced an agenda that would paralyze any other 60-year-old artist: She wants to revive (and film) many of her earlier works, grow her company from its current six members to 12 and then 24, and start adding 20th-century works by other choreographers to what she plans to call the Brooklyn Ballet. And maybe she can do it. Who else has the guts and the know-how and the self-confidence to attempt the rescue of a century of dance?
Her new company, Twyla Tharp Dance, recently made its first New York appearance a mere week at the Joyce, presenting two works she choreographed last year. First came Mozart Clarinet Quintet K581 a quintessentially Balanchinian title, although he might have thought twice about including the Koechel listing. All five of its dancers come from ballet Ashley Tuttle, a current principal at A.B.T.; Keith Roberts and John Selya, ex-members; Benjamin Bowman, ex City Ballet; and Elizabeth Parkinson of Joffrey, Feld, etc., and more recently (with Mr. Roberts) of Broadway’s Fosse . Unsurprisingly, then, this work is very ballet-inflected: You can only wonder why the girls aren’t on pointe. As befits its Mozartean inspiration, it has its courtly accents (the occasional bow or kissed hand), an elegance that sits edgily but not uneasily with the echt Tharp vocabulary of sudden twists and darts, little shoulder wriggles and head thrusts, but its raison d’être seems to lie in solving complicated partnering issues. (If Ms. Tuttle isn’t upside down, she’s being tossed from one guy to another.) There isn’t a stupid or vulgar moment in it, but to me it’s less a deep response to Mozart’s quintet than a lesson in technique which Ms. Tharp is administering to herself: This is one of those moments that makes me feel that ballet is in her head, not in her blood. Perhaps because she’s so busy working things out, Mozart’s heart doesn’t seem to have touched hers. She herself has said that sometimes she starts choreographing to one piece of music, then switches to another; in other words, the dance is linked to the music but not born of it. Twyla Tharp is not going to take orders from anyone, not even Mozart!
But what she gets out of her dancers! And how interestingly contrasted they are, Ms. Tuttle and Mr. Roberts looking more like ballet dancers deeply invested in Tharp, and Ms. Parkinson and Mr. Selya looking more like Tharp dancers deeply invested in ballet. (Synthesis can take you only so far.) Indeed, the second new piece, Surfer at the River Styx , identifies Mr. Selya as an ultimate Tharpian much as I admired him in his A.B.T. days, I wasn’t prepared for this explosive, nuanced, thrilling performance. He may have been a corps member at A.B.T., but at Twyla Tharp Dance, he’s a star. In Surfer , he’s in pale loose garments, making his tortured way across a darkened stage to music, or sounds, by Donald Knaack that suggest everyday noises subway trains roaring into stations, clanging bells. Mr. Bowman and the women of the Mozart piece have been joined by Alexander Brady (from Miami City Ballet), and these four, in black, are chorus, observer, obstacle to Mr. Selya’s progress, presumably across the Styx into the next life. Mr. Roberts, also in pale garb, is the challenger, the anti-Selya and indeed at one point the two men are actually boxing. (Ms. Tharp relishes a good fight.) With Push , Twyla Tharp opened up new territory for Mikhail Baryshnikov, indisputably the world’s greatest dancer. On a more modest scale she accomplishes the same thing here, identifying the strengths and liberating the energies of her entire troupe.
In recent interviews, Ms. Tharp has revealed that Surfer was suggested to her by Euripides’ The Bacchae : She alludes to the cult of Dionysus and the Eleusinian mysteries, and she’s told Robert Johnson in the Newark Star-Ledger that the dance contains an “‘all-purpose Chaos and explosion of the Earth’ ultimately Surfer at the River Styx is about humility and compassion for human feelings.” (I’ll take their word for it, although humility is not the first quality I associate with Twyla Tharp.) This kind of programmatic thinking may help Ms. Tharp formulate her concepts and even realize them, but I don’t know that it’s of much use to the viewer. What we see on stage is an exciting if dark rave-up, with two superb male dancers going all-out to display their bravura powers. Mr. Roberts does endless pirouettes, as intense as they are accurate, and Mr. Selya steals the show with his passionate hip-hoppy routine as he slides and whirls and shudders across the stage in an extended solo that assures the success of this continuously interesting work. That it ends in a kind of apotheosis, with the beautiful Ms. Parkinson held aloft, bathed in a transfiguring glow, presumably indicates that Mr. Selya has made it over the Styx to the promised afterlife. What it inescapably looks like, however, is the close of Balanchine’s Serenade , which is enough of an afterlife for me. It should come as no surprise that Ms. Tharp should end a piece with such a tribute: Balanchine has always been an inspiration for her. I only wish she could absorb more deeply the lesson of his relationship to music.
Meanwhile, the winter season of Balanchine’s own City Ballet wound down way down with its third premiere, Peter Martins’ Burleske , set to the famous Richard Strauss score. It’s yet another ballroom ballet (though alas nowhere near the level of La Valse or Liebeslieder Walzer or Vienna Waltzes) , prettily costumed by Carole Divet in a kind of homage to the great Karinska but that’s the only way it suggests the glories of the past. Five corps couples and two lead couples keep rushing on and off. Darci Kistler is partnered by Jared Angle, and once again Mr. Martins (her husband) has carefully protected her from unrealistic demands. She has some quick turns, and it’s good to see that she can pull them off, but she doesn’t do much else, and none of it is telling. Janie Taylor is actually asked to dance, and she reveals her clear allegro attack while being graciously partnered by Peter Boal, but again to no point. Or maybe a point is intended: Ms. Kistler and Mr. Boal are elder statesmen (statespersons?) of the company, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Angle its newest soloists. At the end of Burleske , in a totally undramatic plot twist, the couples switch: The youngsters go off together, and the elders are left alone on stage. Is this meant to be a ballet about one generation of dancers replacing another? It hardly matters. The whole thing is so bland, so empty, that even The New York Times turned thumbs down.
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