Unpredictable Twyla Comes in All Sizes

What is Twyla Tharp telling us with her current spur-of-the-moment season at the Joyce? That her eye is on the sparrow (her small touring company) as well as on the blimp (her huge Broadway hit, Movin’ Out )? Twyla Tharp Dance has been touring for months-most recently and highly successfully in London-with more or less the same program and forces she’s presenting here: four works, eight dancers. Here’s how the program goes: Dance for two-pause-dance for three-pause-dance for four-intermission-dance for six. As one of the scientists blurts out in the movie of The Andromeda Strain , “It’s growing!” By the time you get to the six, the stage almost seems crowded.

The Known By Heart Duet has been plucked from a longer and more populated piece Tharp made for A.B.T. several years ago. The duet was created for Ethan Stiefel and Susan Jaffe, and was exactly right for them, catching Stiefel’s cockiness and Jaffe’s determination and anchoring the extended piece. Standing on its own now, and partly reconfigured, it still comes across as a sly, witty rethinking of the classical pas de deux, but somehow it’s minimized rather than maximized. Its vocabulary of antagonism becomes an in-your-face statement of an attitude rather than one resonant element within a larger context of feelings.

Matthew Dibble, from England’s Royal Ballet, is a good-looking, slender dancer with all the technique required for Tharp’s windmilling, sliding, juddering inventions, but either he-or she-doesn’t think that’s enough: He’s smiling all over the place, flirting with the audience. If Stiefel is something of a show-off, Dibble is something of a narcissist. And his partner, Lynda Sing, another strong and vivid dancer, is almost too lyrical and appealing. There’s something odd when somebody’s being choked and it’s charming.

One of Tharp’s quintessential early works, The Fugue , has been restored, and if you’ve never seen it-and you probably haven’t-you should try to see it now. But The Fugue isn’t easy. There’s no music, only the sound of three dancers’ feet on a miked floor; the dancers create their own percussion. Occasionally, someone will slap his thighs, or even count out loud: “One, two, three, four.” The rest is silence. In a way, I wish this piece weren’t called The Fugue , because, watching it, you get distracted trying to find the fugue in it. I couldn’t find it 30-odd years ago-I think it was in 1971, a year after The Fugue was made-and I can’t find it now. What I do find is almost limitless invention-Tharp proposing startling steps and combinations, then teasing them, challenging them, refining them, going back and around and into and out of them. This is a severe piece, a crucible in which an artist is finding and identifying herself.

Originally, The Fugue was danced by three women, including Tharp herself, and I seem to remember a heightened audacity and charge to the performance. Now it’s two men and one woman, all three of them up to her virtuoso demands. Jason McDole, who comes from the David Parsons company, is a real find-utterly committed, very musical, with a deep suppleness to his back and hips. Dario Vaccaro, from Argentina, is more classical, more centered, less free perhaps, but no less energized. The girl, Whitney Simler, at first seems boyish, then reveals a modest but telling femininity and quietly holds her own between the rampant guys. The Fugue , though, isn’t about gender, and isn’t really about its dancers; it’s about a burgeoning choreographer’s mind at work. And like its choreographer, it’s assertive, complex and brilliant. Do I like it as much as I did three decades ago? Probably not, because then it was a revelation and now it’s a fascinating piece of recovered history. And the memory of the original cast is ineradicable. Yet it’s exciting to be able to follow Tharp creating herself here, bursting with ideas that all these years later she’s still amplifying and testing. This is bedrock Tharp material.

Not so Westerly Round , a piece two years old and having its official New York premiere. This is the work for four-three men and a woman in a gloss on that old fixture, the square-dancey Western. It’s bouncy, it’s rompy, it’s an audience-pleaser, but 30 years from now we won’t be impatient to see it revived. Emily Coates, a charming redhead we’ve been watching over the years at New York City Ballet and Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project, is the girl, swinging effortlessly through the good-natured routine Tharp has assigned her. Since she’s been given lots of pirouettes on half-pointe, and some specifically balletic lifts, it’s not clear to me why she’s not fully on pointe-the piece might be more interesting, more contrasty, if she were. Is the idea to further blur the lines between “modern” and “ballet”? To demonstrate that it just doesn’t matter? (That would be un-Tharpian-to Twyla, everything matters.) The dancers burst into pyrotechnical displays-to impress each other, it would seem, as much as to impress us. They’re rivals, but they’re also a community. If only they weren’t so ingratiating. This is another piece that would improve with less grinning, less selling. At least it offers a shot of Tharp’s trademark pugnacity.

The program-closer is Surfer at the River Styx , now three years old and more and more clearly a major work. Its original stars-John Selya, Keith Roberts and Elizabeth Parkinson-are on Broadway, the leads in Movin’ Out . They were spectacular in River Styx -Selya, in particular, was a revelation of dynamism, almost of frenzy. With their solid ballet background-both of them came from A.B.T.-Selya and Roberts were superbly matched; their conflict was not only between equals but between brothers. They’ve been replaced now by Charlie Neshyba-Hodges and Matthew Dibble, two dramatically dissimilar dancers. Neshyba-Hodges, who also dominated Westerly Round , is an explosive fireplug with an endearing bald spot. He hardly looks like a dancer-until he begins to dance, revealing a formidable talent. He doesn’t make you forget Selya, but he keeps you from missing him. Dibble does everything right-Tharp requires a series of terrifyingly demanding pirouettes of him, and he’s rock-steady in them. But he doesn’t invest them with color or meaning. It’s exciting, but it’s not moving or frightening. The two secondary men-McDole and Vaccaro, together again-were extraordinary, adding to one’s sense that this dark, mysterious work (Tharp tells us it was suggested by Euripedes’ The Bacchæ ) is too large, too complicated, to be fully explored by any one set of dancers. We’re lucky to have it back, to be reconsidered in the light of this new cast.

Tharp is a loner-relieved, she’s been saying in interviews, not to be saddled with a large institution, with “real estate.” Over the years, she’s proved that she can do just about anything she sets out to do, so what does she want to do now? Can she stay small while getting bigger and bigger? Will she seriously commit herself to revivifying her important work from the past, either under own banner or elsewhere? And will she go on extending the language of dance, building on the foundations she established so long ago in The Fugue and other seminal works? We understand, I think, where Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris are heading; they’ve mapped out their boundaries. But does anyone presume to guess what Twyla Tharp will come up with next?