New York City — On this September Saturday afternoon, the dancers don’t collide with a mirror and break the glass. But it has happened. Saturday is the last day that Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation rehearses at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on Manhattan’s Lower West Side before the company flies to Dallas. It seems that a studio 40-feet in length does not offer enough space for high-velocity movement.
There will be no such problem at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House this weekend, where the company will perform two premieres in celebrating its 50th Anniversary Tour. The Winspear is the first stop on a 10-week cross-country tour and TITAS, along with four other organizations, has commissioned Preludes and Fugues and Yowzie.
Tharp is somewhat averse to “repertory,” as substantial as hers is. She has created more than 160 works, notably Deuce Coupe, Push Comes to Shove, Nine Sinatra Songs, In the Upper Room, and Surfer at the River Styx as well as television specials, Hollywood movies, full-length ballets, Broadway shows and figure-skating routines. Her style is, to say the least, eclectic.
Her musical tastes are just as eclectic, from Beethoven to the Beach Boys. “I don’t reinterpret the music. I coexist,” she says.
Despite the nerve-racking prospect of offering a program of all new works, Tharp’s attitude is: “there is a challenge and excitement to see what I can do.”
She was adamant that for her 50th anniversary tour, she would create new work and not play a “Greatest Hits.”
Preludes and Fugues, set to excerpts from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Volumes 1 and 2, has a particular poignancy. On September 8, 2001, Twyla Tharp Dance performed at the World Trade Center, and was scheduled to perform several days later. The towers came down.
Charles Santos, who was about to relocate to Dallas for his new post as Executive Director of TITAS, was in the audience on Sept. 8, and that began a friendship with Tharp that led to the local organization nabbing the world premiere of these works.
About the events of 9/11, Tharp wrote in a series of articles in The New York Times: “How, I asked myself, was I to justify working on a Broadway show when all around there was only evidence of human destruction. How to justify dancing? Huge headlines were everywhere: WTC I/II down. Suddenly I flashed on another WTC I/II: “The Well-Tempered Clavier Volumes I/II. I had Prelude in C major of Volume 1 on my laptop and I began to dance.”
Tharp created just a few sections, and then set the dance aside. A year-and-a-half ago she got back to work on what became a much longer piece, which is now 50 minutes in length. Preludes and Fugues is big and expansive, joyful, somber, graceful, with elements of Baroque decorum and all the intricate structure characteristic of Bach. “Ecumenical” is how Tharp describes Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.
“It is encyclopedic, it has so many different possibilities of color and form and emotion,” she says.
On this Saturday, two days before the company flies to Dallas, the rehearsal is a complete run-through, with a 15-minute break between Preludes and Yowzie. The 15-minute break gives the 12 dancers time to catch their breath and pull off some of their sweaty baggy pants and tops and put on something lighter. The “audience” consists of Tharp sitting in the middle at the studio’s back, and 10 others were are either friends of some of the dancers or friends of Tharp. I am the only critic. We are assigned seats, and I am number 5. A press person handed out water in the foyer.
After the run-through, Tharp stands up but makes no comments; just smiles and says “very good.” After all, these works have been finely tuned for months.
The rehearsal starts with Preludes and Fugues, where the dancers leap and swirl, fan out to create new lines and disappear. The only exit space is a single door. John Selya (who is on the Southern Methodist University faculty) and Savannah Lowery return and he offers his hand in a stately gesture. Then they embark upon a waltz that turns into an overhead lift, her limbs fanned out like the dipping wings of an airplane.
And so it goes for another 45 minutes: duets, trios, solos and the whole ensemble cutting in and out of space, and at last, gathering in a circle to make one last waltz. The dance is indeed ecumenical.
Existing on an entirely different plane from Preludes and Fugues is Yowzie, wild and unruly, a comic clash of personalities. The music has a circus ring, a compilation of jazz arranged by Henry Butler and Steve Bernstein.
Because several of the dancers—notably Selya, Matthew Dibble and Ron Todorwski have a long history with Tharp, performing on Broadway in her Come Fly Away and the Tony-winning Movin’ Out—they are consummate actors. So is Rita Okamoto, who has worked with Tharp since 1989, and who has a choice role as the wildly incompatible companion of Dibble. They get drunk, he goes transgender, she imagines herself as a gorilla. There is no story, only a series of pratfalls, wiggles, dives and comic faces.
At the end, all skid forward right to the edge of an abyss.
Moving forward is exactly what you can expect from an artist who has earned her right to be one of America’s great choreographers.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine
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