Friday, September 29, 2017

The Many Sides of Tharp

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Matthew Dibble. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Even though Twyla Tharp, 76, has been creating dance for decades, seeing it performed recently by her company at the Joyce yet brings revelations. Her style varies for the occasion. Some of her classical ballets—such as In the Upper Room, in the repertory of ABT—are among the most technically challenging and rigorous that exist. Her Broadway shows, including the smash Movin’ Out, are stocked with crowd-pleasing, jazzy numbers, but always grounded in the ballet lexicon, even if it’s not obvious. And there is her early post-modern stuff—boneless noodling, contact improv, full of wit and quotidian delights.

The Joyce program (which runs to Oct 8) comprised two 1970s pieces and two premieres in a three-week run. The Raggedy Dances (1972), to ragtime music and Mozart, features Matthew Dibble, Kara Chan, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Kellie Drobnick, and Daniel Baker. A pair enters from the right, bobbing, darting, advancing and retreating, and exiting left. This repeats several times, which is kind of funny because they have to cross the stage by running around backstage, out of view. A bare-legged woman with a lace shawl does an alluring short solo, ending with a demi-hinge and a pelvis bump. Various patterns and pathways are trod in the multi-song work, marked by the loose virtuosity for which Tharp is known.

A far more strident and crisp approach is taken in The Fugue (1970). There is no accompaniment, simply percussion from the dancers’ stampings and footfalls. Chan, Gilliland and Tankersley, wearing all black shirts and trousers with red accessories, crack out beats with their hard-soled shoes, and punch the air like martial artists. You barely miss music in this play on rhythms and the potential for humans to make noise. A beautiful lighting scheme (by Jennifer Tipton, who lit the program) featured a house-shaped projection of light on the bare upstage bricks.

Entr’acte (2017) is fascinating as it involves Tharp herself onstage, first giving a lecture-demo of a rehearsal, then herself interacting with longtime muse John Selya, who at one point picks up Tharp upside-down on his back, and spins rapidly. I feared for the fearless choreographer, who obviously trusts her life to Selya (who starred in many of her shows over the years, and before that was in ABT). Her dancers flit around her like so many skilled birds and devotees, but Tharp retains an aura of tough love. And lest you think she lacks humor, she tosses in some lines: “If you think you have something to say, speak your mind... The language of dance has always eluded me.”

While Tharp is a remarkable formalist, it’s pop songs that seem to spark her creative heart. The final work and premiere, Dylan Love Songs, is in the jukebox mode of her Broadway shows (and connects with the short 2006 run of The Times They Are A-Changin’, to Dylan), with a string of seven numbers, each shifting in dynamic and emotion. John Selya lurks around the stage perimeter in a black coat and hat, a sort of shaman or dark spirit, dispensing hats other garments like pixie dust. Reed Tankersley picks up a strewn striped sweater, doing creative things with it—skipping over it, pulling it taut with his foot, wrapping it around his waist or head. A couple falls in and out of romance’s spell; another pair roughhouses, one flipping over the other’s back. Dynamics range from rat-a-tat phrases to lush and lyrical, most succinctly embodied in Kaitlyn Gilliland’s dancing. She has internalized Tharp’s mysterious essence, and combined with her NYCB chops, could be Twyla’s dream personified—a quite different, yet similarly skilled embodiment than another early Tharp ideal, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

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