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Twyla Tharp Dance

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

by Holly Messitt

August 6, 2003 -- Joyce Theater, New York

I have the highest respect for Twyla Tharp, for her innovation, for her concentrated focus on dance and dancers, and for her wide accomplishments throughout her distinguished career.  Speaking many vernaculars, her work tends toward the fun, witty, and imaginative. Full of quick energy and fast, difficult footwork, it crosses borders between ballet, tap, modern dance, disco, Flamenco ... the list goes on. She is even currently working on formulating a notation method for dance that will enable the discipline to leave behind 'artifacts,' since she cites the lack of 'artifacts' as part of the reason that dance lags behind many of the other art forms economically and academically.

During the program that Twyla Tharp Dance brought to its two-week engagement at the Joyce Theater in New York (the same program that the company has been touring with this summer through London, ADF, and Jacob’s Pillow), we saw three relatively current pieces -- the oldest, “Known by Heart Duet,” from 1997, and one historically important piece, “The Fugue,” from 1970.

I appreciated the technical aspects of the featured work, yet I felt that some of the presentation was uneven. The seven dancers in the company, who replace the previous dancers gone now to Broadway to perform Tharp’s and Billy Joel’s "Movin’ Out," are Emily Coates, Matthew Dibble, Jason McDole, Charlie Neshyba Hodges, Whitney Simler, Linda Sing, and Dario Vaccaro. All have all made their reputation in other high-profile companies – including Coates with New York City Ballet and White Oak Dance, Dibble with the Royal Ballet, Hodges with Sacramento Ballet, Sing with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Vaccaro with Ballet Argentino de Julio Bocca. They are fabulous dancers, quick and strong, but they also possess the personality to pull off Tharp’s sense of wit and irony – most of the time.

In “Known by Heart Duet” Sing and Dibble try to perform a traditional pas de deux to selections from Donald Knaack’s "Junk Music," but Dibble refuses to stand in the background supporting Sing. His ego frustrates her and, en pointe, she swings her leg to kick him or bumps him with her hip. Still, he manages to get her off stage long enough to get through a high-energy solo that includes a number of multiple turns. In the end, though, she wins the duel as she knocks him over before they take their bow.

“The Fugue,” an historical piece of Tharpism, was much different from the other pieces on the program. Gone was the sense of fun and irony. Instead, Tharp pulls from her background in tap and works seriously with rhythm – highlighting both the sound and the silence of rhythm. Simler, McDole, and Vaccaro working sometimes in pairs and sometimes all together create the only sound in the theater by stamping their feet on the amplified stage, slapping their hands on their thighs, or sometimes by just standing quietly. The forward flip that McDole executes from a still, standing position is as metaphor to the theory behind the dance. Stillness/motion, sound/silence. Each defines the other.

I found the crowd-pleasing clowning trivialized the 2001 “Westerly Round,” which is set to Mark O’Connor’s "Call of the Mockingbird."  I can appreciate Tharp’s use of American folk vernacular here, but I watched almost horror-struck as Vaccaro and McDole, who carried so much sophistication in “The Fugue,” began to clown in this piece. Their faces looked awkward and silly – not witty. Equally ridiculous was Emily Coates standing on the edge of the stage wobbling as she lifts one bent leg in what we are supposed to read as a comical position. Perhaps it was the night that I saw them, but this piece never came together for me, and I was happy when it was over.

The last piece “Surfer at the River Styx” again employed Knaack’s hard pounding music, an urgent drumming and deafening crashes that he created using found materials. Modeled loosely on Euripides "The Bacchae," the piece features Hodges and Dibble as Bacchus and Petheus, doing battle with the Bacchanals dressed here in black lycra and played by Sing, McDole, Coates, and Vaccaro (in the original the Bacchanals are all frenzied, half mad women). Tharp’s Bacchanals use sharp, angular, menacing movement (some of the movement is reminiscent of the first piece but here takes on a much darker tone). Hodges and Dibble execute spectacular triple and quadruple spins in their fight against the Bacchanals, which could represent the two characters’ being ripped apart. In the Greek tragedy, the human and the divine cannot coexist and will destroy each other. Yet Tharp gives us a gentler ending. She pictures a kind of Heaven with all the characters now dressed in white. In Euripides’ tale, Pentheus is ripped apart by the Bacchanals. Tharp leaves us with a kinder vision: Sing held high in a split carried off stage by the four men.

Edited by Jeff

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