New York City — A gorilla? Or is it only a drunk who imagines herself a gorilla? Whichever. Rika Okamoto sniffs, pats her tummy, and lumbers into startled fairgoers.
The gorilla skit is just one on a barrage of nutty scenes in Yowzie, which made its world debut at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House Friday night. Not content to offer only one new work to celebrate her 50th Anniversary Tour, Twyla Tharp offered a stunning Preludes and Fugues. Where Yowzie was wild and rambunctious, Preludes was breezy and airborn. The event was a collaboration between Dallas’ TITAS and ATTPAC and several other organizations around the country, and had it first public showing here.
Preludes and Fugues has a particular poignancy. On Sept. 8, 2001, the company performed at the World Trade Center and was scheduled to perform several days later. The shock of the towers coming down galvanized Tharp to rethink the purpose of dance, and on her laptop was Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Volumes I and II—with the same initials as the World Trade Center. She began to dance, but it was years before she had time to get back to work on it.
Both Preludes and Fugues and Yowzie open with a fanfare composed by John Zorn. In sand-colored pants and shirts or else tiny tunics of muted blue, orange, mustard, green, avocado and rose, the dancers in Preludes and Fugues slide across stage, leap and make abrupt right turns, spinning in their own orbit. The leaps and spins have the clarity and rigor of classical ballet, but the torso and upper body are relaxed, making every movement as fluid and weighty as mercury.
The dance has a scattershot feel: dancers fly in and fly out, sometimes in twos and threes, and fan out in different directions. But speed turns to stately adagios, as when John Selya takes Savannah Lowery by the hand and they gently undulate, bodies rippling. In one striking section, he carries her aloft and slowly rotates her, her limbs angled like the blades of a dipping airplane.
Playing against the music, Tharp throws is some comic bits—duck-walks, leapfrogs, twitters. In one funny scene, Matthew Dibble and Amy Ruggiero glare at each other. He slaps her on the butt but she gets the last laugh, giving him a little kick and sending him on his way. She smiles sweetly.
The slaps—or dragging a girl by the leg—have none of the animosity of many contemporary works. Everything is playful. Baroque decorum reigns.
Preludes and Fugues ends with dancers forming a circle going counterclockwise then clockwise, separating to turn slowly with arms out windmill-fashion. The dance flows seamlessly with details so finely calibrated that the eye follows everything, entranced. Tharp is the master of surprise.
She is also the master of comedy. Like Preludes and Fugues, Yowzie is preceded with a fanfare. The dancers appear in silhouette, parading across the front of the stage in outlandish getups.
Once the lights come up for Yowzie and the music turns into American jazz, the first surprise is just how outlandish Santo Loquasto’s costumes are: a riot of color and material, little pieces of fabric stitched together chaotically. But clothes take a second seat to the action.
Set in what seems to be a fairground where everyone is out for a good time, the first to show up are the very drunk Dibble and Okamoto, grinning goofily. Next, here’s the unruly trio of Selya, Ron Todorowski and Ruggiero, where the two men take turns flipping Ruggiero over. There is an assortment of other characters as well, prancing, staggering and falling on their faces. The pratfalls don’t end; nor do the antics. Todorowski becomes giddily transgender, eyes fluttering, as Selya nuzzles him. Much to Okamoto’s distress, Dibble finds himself captivated by the two men. He drops her upside down, butt up, legs splayed, and there she stays. They have a rocky relationship, most marked when she becomes a gorilla and weaves her way through a perplexed crowd. At the end, they reunite.
All is forgiven—for now.
The dancing is exuberant from start to finish, packed with surprises down to the last gesture, when 12 dancers propel themselves forward, stopping just at the edge of a precipice.
» 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.
» Photos copyright Robert Hart, photographed exclusively for TheaterJones. To see more photos, click the slideshow button in the floating menu at the bottom left of your screen.