When Twyla Tharp was a child, her mother enrolled her in an array of after-school classes that ranged from ballet, tap, acrobatics and flamenco to baton twirling, drums, and piano. In her 1992 memoir, Push Comes to Shove, Tharp says that her days were so full, she had no time to make friends or to play. While some children might rebel under such a regimen, Tharp seems only to have been fired with ambition. As the world knows, she grew up to be one of America’s foremost choreographers, using the smorgasbord of movement forms she had learned to create a style of dance uniquely her own. She first made works for herself and her own group, beginning in the 1960s, then went on to choreograph for ballet companies, films, and Broadway shows. Her idiosyncratic style, which may look casual to the observer, is notoriously demanding. Nor can it be be reduced to any one genre. It’s an amalgam that encompasses everything from everyday gestures, to spectacular lifts, to a bit of soft shoe, to intricate ballet combinations.
This year is Tharp’s 80th birthday, so to celebrate, she decided to offer a concert and invite some of the country’s starriest dancers to join her. She divided the program, entitled Twyla Now, into two parts separated by an intermission. Three duets occupied the first half, and a new group work, the second. The result was on display last week at New York City Center.
All In, the group premiere, is set to Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op 120, performed at City Center by Stephen Gosling, piano, and Agnes Marchione, clarinet. It is one of those plotless works where each dancer gets a moment to shine, and which culminates in a grand finale for the entire cast.
The major performers were James Gilmer and Jacquelin Harris of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Aran Bell and Cassandra Trenary of American Ballet Theatre; Tiler Peck, Roman Mejia, and Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet, along with Robbie Fairchild, formerly of City Ballet and more recently of Broadway, TV and film. They were joined by six youngsters, age 14 to 20, who made up a supporting ensemble: Brady Farrar, Savannah Kristich, Zoe Liebold, Jaiden Galan Roman, Alycia Williams and William Woodward. Tharp found each of these young artists on the internet and invited them to participate, an imaginative way to be inclusive. The ensemble moved in and out of the action, and occasionally had a starring role of its own.
All In did not break new choreographic ground. It was, rather, an homage to dancers, and to these dancers in particular, delivered in familiar Tharpian language, and including a scattering of references to the duets we had seen earlier. As such, it provided a fitting end to an evening of celebration.
The duets offered contrasting moods and approaches to movement. Cornbread was virtuosic, Second Duet tension filled, and Pergolesi, a reminder of Tharp at the height of her powers. Tiler Peck was teamed with Roman Mejia for the good natured Cornbread, choreographed in 2014. This duet combined folk and square dance elements, like flexed feet and sashaying walks, with balletic technique. The piece was crammed with enough movement for a three-act ballet, much of it executed at a dizzying pace. Peck, who was on pointe, executed the demands with apparent ease. Mejia matched her in a series of athletic feats, while both looked like they were enjoying every challenge. There was, however, one odd moment in the dance, when the hoedown atmosphere (the music was by the Carolina Chocolate Drops) suddenly switched to something more akin to seductive Middle Eastern rhythms. This slow section included shimmying shoulders and swaying hips, a puzzling interjection in an otherwise exuberantly American dance.
Second Duet, a premiere, was set to a harshly discordant score by Thomas Larcher, entitled Mumien, played by Stephen Gosling and Gabriel Gabezas on piano and cello. The first cast featured Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer, Ailey dancers with a modern dance background. At the performance I saw, it was danced by ABT’s, Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell, and may not have been the best fit for these classical dancers.
Here the mood shifts were even more radical than in Cornbread. The duet started with a fraught relationship between the dancers; there was some pushing and shoving, and at one point, Trenary slapped Bell. Then the dance switched to Trenary pantomiming weight lifting. She attempted to lift an imaginary weight, Bell came to her assistance, but they struggled. Then, Irving Berlin’s “Do I Love You” replaced the strident sounds of Mumien and the couple waltzed companionably together, before the harsh music returned, and the dance reverted to struggle as Bell scrambled to hold on to Trenary. They eventually collapsed in exhaustion, until he rose and left the stage with her wrapped around him. Although Second Duet clearly concerned issues of partnership, once again the abrupt shift of movement and mood between sections prevented it from reading as a logical whole. In an interview, Tharp said she based the dance on improvisations she recorded years ago for a piece that was never produced. Perhaps that accounts for its strange sense of disjointedness.
Tharp created Pergolesi in 1992 for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The work derives its title from the score, which is set to parts of various Pergolesi compositions. The duet showed Tharp at her best, hinting at the process of dance making by the inclusion of little mistakes and amusing asides, which she casually tossed into a larger structure of pure beauty. However, Tharp wasn’t content to reproduce the duet as originally performed. She switched the roles, so that Sara Mearns danced Baryshnikov’s part and Robbie Fairchild danced Tharp’s. It was a gamble that worked, emphasizing how the dancers remained independent while performing together, as well as how evenly divided they were, each in his or her own way. In her choreography, Tharp gave the Baryshnikov role plenty of room for virtuosic display, but she matched it in her own dances, often by taking a completely different tack, or by interrupting him with a cheeky solo.
Mearns and Fairchild were incandescent together, never exaggerating details that could have been played for easy laughs, and within the larger vision of the piece, dancing with a pristine clarity that created images of immense beauty. Fairchild seems to have gained new insights from his move away from City Ballet. His arms etched patterns of movement that grew beyond his physical reach, like the expanding ripples in a swimmer’s wake. Mearns is always intelligent, but the challenges of such an unaccustomed role, with its male vocabulary, pushed her to find new sources of inspiration.
Altogether, Tharp Now proved to be intriguing if, at times, perplexing, as the sudden shifts in Cornbread and Second Duet demonstrated. Another strange element was some of Santo Loquasto’s costumes. Tharp and Santo Loquasto have been associated since early in her career when he invented the stylish take on dancers’ practice clothes, transformed into silks and satins, which became iconic. There were times in Tharp Now, however, when the costumes looked bizarre, as in Mejia’s drooping, flesh-colored tights, or the black shorts and T-shirts of the ensemble in All In, which contrasted jarringly with the spare elegance of the central dancers’ white costumes.
What is clear is that Tharp, at 80, isn’t resting on her laurels. She could simply have provided an evening of her greatest hits, but she chose the riskier path of innovation, which occasionally felt forced, but generally worked well. Certainly the audience seemed satisfied. Its repeated cheers sounded more like the crowd at a rock concert than a high-art dance performance.