Twyla Tharp Dance

"Known by Heart Duet", "The Fugue",
" Westerly Round", "Surfer at the River Styx"

by Emma Pegler

July 2003 -- Sadler’s Wells, London


The curtain opened for Twyla Tharp’s “Known by Heart Duet” to reveal a set-less open space lit with muted tones. I was immediately transported to New York’s SoHo Grand Hotel. Lynda Sing’s silky shift dress in taupe paired with Matthew Dibble’s creamy grey collarless shirt and trouser ensemble is reminiscent of the muted tones of the soft furnishings in the aforementioned hotel. And I can imagine that Ms Tharp and her brand of choreography, for a brand her dance style has become, is much feted in the consciously modern bars of downtown SoHo. What I am driving at is that “Known by Heart Duet” and the evening’s closing piece, “Surfer at the River Styx,” are thoroughly modern. Not in the Martha Graham sense of modern dance and not avant-garde in the direction in which William Forsythe has taken Ballett Frankfurt, but rather Twarp fuses all aspects of the classical with the popular and the contemporary. Ms Sing may dance ‘on pointe’ in “Known by Heart Duet” but that characteristic “All that Jazz” move - the quick step to the side with the other leg dragged in to meet the supporting leg with a slow drag and raised hip – is fused with classical arms and body line. Tharp is equally at home choreographing to Beethoven as to Donald Knaack’s percussion modelled on disused junk. Thus she is fully integrated into modern America and the modern American’s life.

Tharp has choreographed over 120 works and is still in demand so she is not a trendy fad. Her choreography is in the repertoire of companies as diverse as American Ballet Theater, Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet Company and Hubbard Street Dance Company and The Martha Graham Company. In other words, her brand speaks to, and she can adapt to, any kind of dancer’s body and company style. The whole look is modern. The costumes look like the sort of thing one ought to wear in order to fit in with the crowd that habituates the dimly lit bars of fashionable America. Ms Tharp has infiltrated the entire spectrum of modern culture: she has choreographed five Hollywood movies, has won two Tony Awards for the Broadway hit “Movin’ Out” set to music by Billy Joel, has won two Emmy awards and received 18 honorary doctorates. She was the obvious choice to create a piece on the Russian superstar Baryshnikov who, freshly arrived in New York in the seventies, was eager to explore new music and new movement. She took jazz and she took ballet and she gave him “Push Comes to Shove.”

Yet the most important element of Tharpism seems to be that it has moved with the times. In the sixties she joined the Judson Church movement. She ran her own dance company – not a pick-up troupe but a full-time, full-salaried company of dancers – until the late eighties. When that started to prove uneconomical she disbanded the company and assimilated her dancers into ABT, which she joined as Artistic Associate to the then Artistic Director, Baryshnikov. After that she freelanced and then for the new Millennium she established another company. Evolution and adaptation to changing tastes are the marks of a good brand.

Tharp’s dancers move seamlessly between ballet, modern dance and jazz, often all in one piece. Not just because they have been well taught but because they are inherently good dancers. Matthew Dibble is quite brilliant. He has strong technique learned from the Royal Ballet School (and no doubt polished while he was a soloist with the Royal) and a mercurial speed that allow him literally to devour Tharp’s composition. That is not to say that his delivery is ahead of the music. His jazzy inversions and delayed drags are right on cue and his energy carefully managed, faithful to the doctrine which dictates that ‘less is more’. He probably acquired his high-octane delivery from his former employment with Teddy Kumakawa’s ‘K Ballet’ in Japan. (He was one of the four founding members newly defected from the Royal Ballet and it struck me that with his short-cropped hair and enthusiastic dancing he could easily qualify as the third ‘Ballet Boyz.’) The choreographed partnership between Sing and Dibble is again thoroughly modern – they are formal and contrived with each other at times, they let down their defences and emote and they interact comically. There is pure balletic lyricism, set to Knaack’s percussive egg-box and bottle top music, and classical partnering blended with modern informal interaction.

“The Fugue” has acquired the reputation for being vintage Tharp. Made in the seventies, it is a piece without music set to the heel tap and stomp sounds of the three dancers. It is clever and the two boys – Jason McDole and Dario Vaccaro - and one girl – Whitney Simler – do their damnedest to entertain us. But the truth is the piece (which is a mere 14 minutes long) drags and outlives its cleverness.

“Westerly Round” a ‘feel-good’ Americana piece set to Mark O’Connor’s “Call of the Mockingbird” reignited the proceedings. It is not a great piece insofar as I wouldn’t mind if I never saw the choreography again. Yet it is a perfect showcase for good dancing and former Sacramento dancer, Charlie Neshyba Hodges, shows off his sublime virtuosity and perfect comic timing as he cavorts, skips and jumps in combat with McDole and Vaccaro to compete for the attention of the all American-gal, Emily Coates. It is life lived out in a square dance.

For the 30-minute closing work, we are back in lobby bar of the SoHo Grand. The dancers are carefully and flatteringly illuminated by lighting designer Scott Zielinski to stand out from the darkness as if lit from below by the soft warm tones of candlelight. The choreography incorporates the full gamut of Tharp moves and the totality of the work and the performances by the sextet of dancers, featuring all the dancers from the first three works, demonstrates the depth of the Twarp brand. Now we have drama and darkly threatening moments. There is traditional coupling, dancing in splinter groups, dancing in unison and groups dancing simultaneously but performing differing steps. Sing and Coates dance in soft shoes but the work is again based on strong ballet technique – classical and neo-classical. A good comparison for the piece would be Wayne MacGregor’s piece “Symbiont(s)” made on Royal Ballet dancers and contemporary dancers who were encouraged to experiment with each other’s technique. When the choreography is devised, and executed, well, the ballet dancer should invert and contort, and the contemporary dancer should elongate muscles and present arms like a classical deity, as if second nature to them.

I came away from the evening thinking that I understood the essence of Tharp. Her work is like a Donna Karan suit: impeccably cut to fit the contours of the body; understated and restrained; with a hidden sexy pzazz that reveals itself as the dancer moves and the choreography unfolds.


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