Mixed Bill, Mixed Bag

by Martha Sherman

Twyla Tharp has been mixing it up for over fifty years. She has spent her career confounding expectations, incorporating and stretching every dance style and vocabulary – – strict ballet with casual movement, Broadway with high culture, dance shoes with sneakers, and always her ubiquitous shoulder shrug. She also sets her unconventional mix against some great, eclectic music. Her new work is danced to love songs by Bob Dylan. Of the revivals before it, one paired ragtime and Mozart, the other just percussion, with a Bach base.

A rough-edged “Entr’Acte” was added at the last minute (it didn’t make it into the printed program.) At 76, you can’t fault Tharp for her energy, her personal style, or her chutzpah. The evening was a mixed success, but she – and her dancers – were all in, and the audience went along happily for the ride.

The two revivals offered the strongest choreography and dancing. The dance highlight was “The Fugue,” from 1970. Inspired by Bach’s “The Musical Offering,” the score was only rhythm played by the amplified sound of the dancers’ feet (in wonderful red dance shoes – not the boots of the original 1970 costumes, but by the original costume designer, Santo Loquasto). The shifting rhythmic patterns were thrilling, especially the synesthesia of watching with our ears and hearing those feet (and occasional clapping hands) with our eyes.

The dancer highlight, both in “The Fugue” and the rest of the program, was Reed Tankerley, whose strength and athleticism sizzled in each of his scenes. The Tharp quirks – a collapsing waist or knees, loose joints, that shoulder shrug – were entirely integrated, as his feet snapped on the floor. His partners in “The Fugue,” Kaitlyn Gilliland (in a cast change) and Kara Chan, were excellent foils, also commanding and rhythmic, but were best seen as a fulcrum balanced around Tankerley’s beat.

Raggedy Dances (1972) was a classic of Tharp humor, with a wonderfully simple premise. Accompanied by an excellent pianist, Joseph Mohan, pairs of dancers skittered and tipped along long horizontal bands of the stage to several ragtime tunes – and Mozart’s KV265 (recognized as the brilliant variations in C of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). The rhythmic shifts offered the dancers shifts of pace and energy, and the horizontal lines of movement started with a charming duet danced entirely along the few narrow feet of the Joyce’s stage apron. The horizontal direction was offset by the verticality of the choreography. Every body line surged up: instead of bending or lifting or moving up and down in space, the partners leaned and lurched, often in close parallel, finding balance even from the most precarious stances. They rotated around each other, extending the movement with the lines of their legs and arms, up and up as they sashayed from one wing to the opposite side.

Twyla Tharp. Photo © Robert Whitman

Some advance promises for the opening were broken, like the expected reappearance of former Tharp dancers (including Sara Rudner, one of Tharp’s early booted partners in “The Fugue”), but Tharp made a trade, and instead, offered herself both in generosity and self-indulgence. The roughly assembled “Entr’Acte” was an addition to the printed program, and included a part-rehearsal with the cast, and part-hobo duet that Tharp danced with another of her long-time dancers, John Selya. Although both are well past their dancing prime, they are comfortable partners, especially in the particular tics and quirks of Tharp’s movement. No one shrugs a shoulder like she does; no one slinks on lightly bent knees quite like Selya. Their lifts were more tenuous than their easy, familiar parallel movement, but they exuded comfort and grace, after decades with this style.

The world premiere of “Dylan Love Songs” also felt like an indulgence, this time in the luxury of the music, each a complete wonderful story or state of mind, told with Dylan’s brilliant roughness. As couples oozed on and off stage to “Shelter from the Storm,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and “Simple Twist of Fate” among others, their dance was familiar movement vocabulary but was less rigorous than “The Fugue,” and less distinct (or amusing) than “Raggedy Dances.” Costumed by Loquasto, the dancers seemed to come out of a –maybe – Wild West motif that matched Dylan’s twang, but not his universality. Lit by Jennifer Tipton, the dancers’ shadows, silhouetted large against the back scrim, were often more dramatic than the dance steps on stage. The steps hewed more closely to ballet than the earlier works, and, at the same time, didn’t riff on that discipline as creatively as the older works. And the dancers’ mood didn’t match the stories, like the slight smirk of the pair who danced to the gentle, poignant “Simple Twist of Fate.”

Most out-of-step was the lurking figure of Selya, costumed in a long dark coat and hat that hid his body and face, like a caricature of a pervert sneaking through the series of loves scenes. When he stretched his arms in a beautiful long diagonal to either side of his body, it looked like an attempt at freedom, the structure under wings in flight, but then, as he sneaked across the stage (his own large shadow especially foreboding,) those whimsical arms didn’t make sense. Dylan’s music told us poetic stories of sought-after love. The paired dancers and the intruder didn’t.

The eclectic combinations of the evening fell right in line with Tharp’s habit of mixing it up, and seeing again some of the early work was a happy reminder of where she came from. If the recent work had less to offer, it was good to remind ourselves of the breadth and courage of her imagination for more than half a century.

copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman

“Raggedy Dances,” “The Fugue,” “Entr’Acte,” “Dylan Love Songs” – Twyla Tharp Dance
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
September 19, 2017

Cover: Sara Rudner and Rose Marie Wright in “The Raggedy Dances” (1972). Photo © William Pierce

Got something to say about this? Sound off here

Don’t miss a thing! We’ll send you a notification of every article we post if you sign up with your email. (The signup is right below, scroll down). We promise you won’t be deluged and we won’t spam you either.