More, More, More!
Fifty years of dance-making is a long time, and in that time Twyla Tharp has done just about everything a choreographer can do: made works for Baryshnikov (Push Comes to Shove, etc.), danced to the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton (Eight Jelly Rolls), composed dances for regular people (The One Hundreds), worked in the movies (Hair, White Nights), created shows for Broadway (Movin’ Out, etc.), written books. She’s had triumphs and she’s had flops, and she’s survived them all. Her dances are in the repertories of dozens of companies – ABT just finished up a run of her masterful Brahms-Haydn Variations. But the past is never enough for Tharp; it’s always about the new, the next thing, more.
For her fiftieth-anniversary tour, which rolls into town this week at the David Koch theatre, she has created two new works, Preludes and Fugues and Yowzie (as well as two short “fanfares” set to music for brass by John Zorn). For the past few months, Tharp has been chronicling her creative process in a fascinating “artist’s journal” in the New York Times. In these reflective essays, she describes the rehearsal studio as a place of exploration and endless work, an almost heavenly retreat from the mundane. The dancers are of various generations. Some, like John Selya and Rika Okamoto, have worked with her for decades; others, like Savannah Lowery (on loan from New York City Ballet) and Kaitlyn Gilliland, are newbies. Many of them have interestingly varied backgrounds. They’ve worked on Broadway, in the movies, with the Rockettes; one, Daniel Baker, was a finalist on the TV show “So you Think you Can Dance.” They all have a strong, eager, all-American charm, personalities that project, technique to burn, and, perhaps most importantly, inconceivable amounts of energy.
Tharp demands everything of them. The two pieces are long, hyper-virtuosic and jam-packed with activity, performed with a mix of aw-shucks nonchalance and turbo-charged attack, a distinctively Tharpian blend. Absolutely nothing is left in the tank, but it’s not supposed to look like they’re trying too hard. The moves come from ballet, boxing, football, vaudeville, rock-and-roll and that hard-to-define cool-but-awkward style that is Tharp’s natural vocabulary. The music is also echt Tharp: Preludes and Fugues is set to Bach (the Well-Tempered Clavier, in two different recordings), and Yowzie, to blues and boogie from a recording by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9. Classical music and jazz – the yin and yang of Tharp.
Preludes is more pure, more dancy, Yowzie more slapstick and rough-and-tumble. The latter plays around with comic situations and sub-plots. There’s a hint of a striptease, a gorilla dance, a flirtation between three men and an over-the-top drunk dance for Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto. Preludes leaves story aside, though the interactions have a more or less competitive edge. Inevitably, given that Preludes is set to Bach, its text (and subtext) is structure itself. There are canons in the choreography, and fugues, and moments of proliferating counterpoint in which six or seven people show you six or seven things, all at once. There’s a lot to take in.
Both works display that American insouciance, the rolling shoulders and swiveling hips, the bobbing heads and hint of tap that Tharp has made her signature, as well as impossible lifts in which the women twist and fold themselves into six or seven shapes as the men move them through space. Preludes and Fugues begins and ends with one of these, in which Selya, a dancer both heroic and immediately likeable, raises the statuesque Savannah Lowery (who has never looked better) in an overhead arabesque and revolves her slowly until they disappear in the wings.
Indeed, there is a lot of heavy lifting – and tossing, and falling – but it never feels oppressive, perhaps because the women look so alive when they are in the men’s arms. They are as strong as their partners, and often give them quite a pounding. Both works contain a lot of pushing and shoving. One duet in Preludes ends with an unceremonial kick in the gut. These ladies aren’t melting flowers. It’s especially fun to watch Rika Okamoto, who at first appears to be the most delicate and fine-boned of all the women, galumphing around the stage and scratching her belly like a gorilla. She comes the closest to moving the way Tharp used to, at least in videos. She’s angular and gawky but cool in that ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn-if-you-like-me’ kind of way.
I’ll admit the pratfalls and mugging in Yowzie wore me down. In fact, both pieces feel long, though the end of Preludes, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins – a mentor – is truly lovely, full of poetic resonance. Yowzie is less fun than it tries to be, a common problem with funny dances (see Paul Taylor). The costumes, colorful concoctions by Santo Loquasto in clashing patterns with bits and pieces hanging off and all manner of head-gear, are pretty hideous, and add to the cartoonishness of the piece. (In Preludes, the women wear sporty little tennis dresses in various candy colors, while the men are in tan jeans and tuxedo shirts, with gold belts. It works.)
Even so, one can’t help but admire the torrent of ideas bouncing around Tharp’s brain, the endless problems and ingenious solutions she creates for her dancers. This is an artist still madly in love with dance. Despite the workout, her dancers look elated. Tharp’s anniversary gift to herself and to the audience is this: dance and more dance.