Dancing to a different beat

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday October 21, 2015
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Choreographer Twyla Tharp. Photo: Greg Gorman
Choreographer Twyla Tharp. Photo: Greg Gorman

Twyla Tharp's 50th anniversary tour danced into Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley last weekend presented by Cal Performances, preceded by unheard-of fanfare in The New York Times, where each stage of progress towards the Big Apple premiere is being given the "out-of-town opening" coverage usually reserved for Broadway shows. Indeed, Tharp's most recent dance pieces have been Broadway shows (Movin' Out ran for three years). Well, if this one is going to move from the Joyce Theater to Broadway, it will need more than just a "play doctor" to help make it a hit. As it stands, it can't make up its mind if it's high-brow and difficult, or an entertainment that needs to keep grabbing and tweaking your attention. And it's too loud and too long.

Don't get me wrong. Twyla Tharp deserved her MacArthur ("genius") grant and all the Emmys and Tonys that have come her way since she founded her own dance company in 1965. It is a tragedy for art in America that she tried to merge that company into American Ballet Theatre. Since there, despite the much greater financial support and access to large audiences, she lost the cadre of dancers dedicated to her mission, which was to cross-breed jazz and modern with ballet, to fuse high-brow and low-brow in a new way that met the way people felt after the tumultuous 1960s had passed.

She did create an idiom that other choreographers have built on, the current fusion of ballet and contemporary dance. Nobody who saw her glorious Nine Sinatra Songs danced here by her own company ca. 1987, then saw it horribly diminished by the ABT dancers, could have failed to notice that the dance had lost all its sweep, its mystery and glamor. The steps were still there, but there was almost no dancing left. Then, after times changed at ABT, soon she was out on her own, and instead of giving us new dances to fit the 90s, she had to turn (as Balanchine had done before her) to Broadway and Hollywood, since she needed work and certainly had the chops.

Twyla Tharp's dancers (Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula and Eva Trapp Coppula) in Preludes and Fugues. Photo: Ruven Afanador

For this show, she brought 13 dancers and two big dances, each with an ugly brass fanfare (canned music throughout). The suite of dances to Bach's Well Tempered Clavier begins, to the well-known Prelude in C, with movement so unremarkable it must be a reference to the "pedestrian" style that prevailed among the avant-garde downtown dancers of the 60s. But nothing much develops as she passes through duets and acrobatic trios, group pieces with spectacular throws and catches and the occasional heroic pirouettes (but why did that stunt need to be there?) and sections with quite a crowd onstage doing unmotivated things. Suddenly a dancer would pass through them, spinning slowly like a meditating dervish, and the calm of it would be very satisfying " not to mention the remarkable skill displayed in her moving amongst the throng without every hitting anybody. At times like that, you had to admire Tharp's ability to move large numbers of people around. But though the skill was there, there was little to love. Until the end, when the C Major Prelude came back and the dancers joined hands " suddenly, finally, a real group-mind appeared, like that of a flock of birds. They all took up the slow-motion spinning motif, and the piece came to a quiet end.

The second major piece, Yowzie, a suite of Depression-era dance-hall scenes in outrageously goofy costumes, was set to bouncy American jazz tunes arranged and played by Henry Butler. Though it had some riffs that did not work (a drunk-act that was not funny), and the prima donna seemed just not to bring her character to life, many of the dancers found the groove and were able to make the piece infectious. Prime amongst these were Daniel Baker, Ron Todorowski (as a shy gay boy who could barely believe that Mr. Hot Stuff was actually interested in him " everybody in the house loved this bit), Amy Ruggiero as a game hoofer who aims to please, and above all Ramona Kelley, the shortest dancer and the one with the smallest role, but who grew up in Berkeley and was enjoying a triumphant homecoming by dancing in the groove, beautifully, all night.

Perhaps there would have been a chance to regroup had not the dance boom ended with the end of the Cold War in 1989, when the State Department lost its rationale for sponsoring tours of American dance companies overseas. Soviet propagandists had sent their Bolshoi and Kirov dancers everywhere as goodwill ambassadors, and the USA reciprocated, sending Graham, ABT, Alvin Ailey, wave upon wave of dancers abroad to show the non-English speaking world American values. Tharp's Deuce Coupe (1973), danced by the Joffrey Ballet to music by the Beach Boys, was only one of her brilliant, thrilling, refreshing, groundbreaking new ways of putting together a dance that showed America to the world " and to Americans. For her own company, she made dances that used the methods of aerobics, and women who did Jane Fonda workouts could see themselves onstage in beautifully crafted dances made in their idiom. I remember sitting next to a woman in Zellerbach Hall who told me she envied the dancers onstage the workout they were getting.

Her biggest claim to immortality came when she made roles for the sensational Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had made international headlines by claiming political asylum. It was a Hollywood-style romance, a thinly veiled allegory of the triumph of American values when the Russian ballet dancer (Prince Charming) wants to dance with the American girl whose parents had owned a drive-in theater in Rialto, CA.

For now, sad to say, Tharp's blogging in the Times makes this production sound like her swan song.