Vintage Tharp, defining America

In a rare and vital Portland performance, Twyla Tharp and dancers celebrate America as it ought to be, and as it is

When I opened my e-mail Thursday morning, I found among the many demands for money by various worthy causes, one from something calling itself Define America.

How serendipitous.  Wednesday night in a White Bird presentation at a packed Schnitz, Twyla Tharp and her extraordinary troupe defined America at its best with their “I can do anything I damn well please and do it damn well” dancing.

Americans as a people resist pigeonholing, much as critics and politicians would like to put us there, and keep us there, neatly filed away as modern, tap or ballet dancers, classicists, iconoclasts, or, politically speaking, conservative, liberal, socialist, anarchist.

It’s not the political that concerns us here, although there are political aspects to Preludes and Fugues and Yowzie, the two new works Tharp made to celebrate her golden anniversary as an artist of the dance. Both reflect today’s political events and social concerns, without, thank goodness, a shred of pomposity or didacticism.

Yowzie: Tharp linchpins Okamoto and Dibble. Photo: Ruven Afanador

Yowzie: Tharp linchpins Okamoto and Dibble. Photo: Ruven Afanador

Tharp has been thinking about Preludes since 9/11.  Her company (a different company from the one she assembled for this tour) had performed at the World Trade Center a few days before, and was supposed to return several days later. On a day when much of the country was paralyzed by the shock of the attack on American soil, Tharp’s first instinct was to move. As the story goes, she had Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier [WTC] on her laptop and started dancing to the music.

The result, fourteen years later, was a dance she says “is the world as it ought to be.” The world she has made is ordered, peaceful, one in which tempers are not lost and humor is found, with several moments that reminded me of a child dancing while someone plays the piano, simply reacting to the music as Tharp did in a shattered New York, in 2011.

Preludes begins with a fanfare composed by John Zorn for the occasion, which sets the celebratory tone for the evening and introduces the dancers, who are dressed by Santo Loquasto in snappy gold-belted khakis for the men, and flippy, short-skirted sundresses in bright colors for the women.  Loquasto, who did the set as well as the outrageous psychedelic patchwork costumes for Yowzie, has been working with Tharp since 1974, when they did Push Comes to Shove for American Ballet Theatre: think Baryshnikov, free of tights and doublet, in plush shirt and trousers, wearing a bowler hat that becomes part of the choreography.

Indecorous classicism characterizes the movement for Preludes, the intersection of music and movement mathematically precise, a puzzle that Tharp both makes and solves, reminiscent of the matching of multiple planes of color in a Rubik’s cube. The steps – and are there ever steps – are vintage Tharp: social dancing, bravura turns, duets, trios, quartets that juxtapose ballet line, straight, pure geometric line that many of these classically trained dancers have spent years achieving, against the collapsing limbs of a Raggedy Ann doll. To this heavenly music’s shifting tempos, the dancers skitter and skip, or swoop in a curve, then slide to a halt, like a ballplayer sliding into second base, the latter echoing Tharp’s early work with the post-modernists.

Is the piece an homage to Tharp’s influences?  You see some Paul Taylor, when one dancer leaps over the prone body of another, some first-position flexed feet that could come from Merce Cunningham (you heard me!) or George Balanchine (see Apollo), some upper-body curving that surely comes from Martha Graham, and one section of several couples dancing that made me think of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. Cameo bravura dancing (at one point pirouettes à la seconde elicited cheers from the audience), jitterbugging, and the social dancing of the choreographer’s youth are all part of the mix. At the start, a male and female dancer cling to each other, in a slow, sexy, sorrowful duet (and no, I don’t know who they were, the sight lines at the Schnitz being what they are).

Preludes ends with a stunning circle dance by all twelve company members, a unifying principle if ever there was one. The women’s red, blue, yellow, purple, orange, lavender costumes made me think of Matisse’s two paintings of dancers, although his dancers are nude. Planes may be used to destroy buildings and lives, this seems to say, but the world keeps turning.

Audience behavior during Preludes was a bit jarring; there was applause every time the music shifted, or a dancer did a bravura turn, not acceptable behavior at a symphony concert, nor was it here. There was a standing ovation at the end, and a few people departed from the theater, muttering about clichés. How are they clichés when their original designer reinvents them in her own work?

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

Yowzie, too, begins with a fanfare, the dancers posed on stage behind a scrim in silhouette (and speaking of clichés, where have we seen that before, and how often?). As James F. Ingalls’ lights intensify, we see the dancers dressed in Loquasto’s mad motley, executing Tharp’s signature vocabulary, but skewed a different way—it’s angular, hip-slung, down-and-dirty at times, and just as complicatedly musical as Preludes, though this time the music is American jazz, songs by Jelly Roll Morton, Wesley Wilson, “Fats” Waller and Henry Butler, recorded by Butler and Steven Bernstein with The Hot 9. Rika Okamoto, who has been dancing for Tharp since 1993 is the linchpin of this piece, with Matt Dibble, who started working with Tharp in 2001, telling a story of a man and a woman who fight (he’s abusive) and separate, each then flirting with others, he with another man, in a movement sendup of gay stereotyping, and duly get back together again – only this time, she’s in charge.

Yowzie begins in a carnival atmosphere (there’s a jagged-lined, multi-colored backdrop that looks pretty jazzy in a nonliteral way), the dancers deployed in such a way that they look like a really big, jovial crowd. Okamoto and Dibble weave drunkenly among them; they are really wasted, in the inebriated sense, both of them. Okamoto collapses in a seated position, her body hinged forward, like the Ballerina in Fokine’s Petrouchka—this carnival atmosphere is deliberate, I think; Petrouchka starts the same way. But that’s a Russian carnival. Here, the music places the work in New Orleans, another city struck by disaster. While I decide halfway into the piece I’m not fond of the costumes, I’m having so much fun watching these dancers I stop taking notes. Their energy is palpable; they’re dancing like crazy.

Tharp calls Yowzie the “world as it is” – a world, the dance says, in which we suffer and celebrate, love and learn, and deal as best we can with the messiness of human relationships. Nothing’s orderly about this piece, although it’s definitely designed. And Okamoto, whether staggering around like Judy Collins’ “drunk in midnight choir”; or wistfully, desperately, searching for her man; or spinning wildly, reminds me of Tharp herself when she was dancing. And that’s nothing shabby.

Does Tharp break new ground in either of these works?  I’m not sure, and in truth I don’t much care. On her golden anniversary, she puts on one helluva show. That’s enough for me, though I hope it’s not enough for her: I want to see what she does next.

 

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