Wagner declared Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to be a supreme aural realization of dance. Still, the evidence of Wagner’s own music – hardly rhythm-driven, for one thing – undermines his authority on the subject of scores likely to mate well with movement. In choreographing The Beethoven Seventh for the New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp tried to accomplish the impossible, goaded by her characteristic rebelliousness and ambition. Balanchine (whose aesthetic still rules the company, one hopes) took a dim view of both dancing to Beethoven and choreography by Tharp, whose smart-alecky mode of operation often obscures her grasp of classicism. Tharp, who revered Balanchine, is clearly going into the lists with him in her new piece, where order barely holds chaos in check, and street-smart dance languages engage with ballet’s exquisite formalities. One of the reasons for The Beethoven Seventh’s failure may be the number of issues being played out.
Tharp responds to Beethoven’s majestic music, which is confident of an eternally stable universe grounded in nature, with an architecture that is continually self-destructing and an urban, postmodern atmosphere that alternates angst and precarious gaiety. The ballet focuses on three couples. Jenifer Ringer and Peter Boal establish the idea of fragmented, frenetic contemporary life. Wendy Whelan (for once poignant as well as physically brilliant) and Nikolaj Hübbe (wryly self-dramatizing) are the most vivid, depicting lovers who can’t live with or without each other. Miranda Weese and Damian Woetzel play natives of Jerome Robbins country – sweet, carefree adolescents whose blithe athleticism and pert demeanor are just a little cloying. The relationship of these couples to one another and to the disjunctive, hyperactive ensemble never coheres, and too much self-consciously clever stuff happens without making a significant impact, viscerally or emotionally.
Tharp’s Beethoven Seventh is far from being a horrible or hapless ballet. (Indeed, it’s sveltely professional, masterly in its craft and canny in its details.) It’s merely an insignificant one – the sort of item mass-produced at the company’s regular orgies of new work by choreographers trying to appear daring and with-it while they come to terms with Balanchine, whose genius lies so far beyond their modest gifts. Tharp has done much better than this and will, I have no doubt, do so again.