Electric Company

Hanging ten: Tharp dancers in Surfer at the River Styx.Photo: courtesy of Tharp Productions

In 1988, Twyla Tharp turned her back on sustaining a company of her own and became the dance world’s most formidable freelance. Continually evolving her blend of ballet, modern, jazz, and vernacular dance, she created striking works for the likes of American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and England’s Royal Ballet. The freedom from the financial and managerial rigors of running the show was welcome, but the rootlessness was not. This year, Tharp returned to the position of operating from a home base with dancers she has chosen and groomed to be the instruments of her vision.

Never lacking in ambition, Tharp now proposes to institutionalize on a grand scale, bringing into being a foundation; a company that can dance her own repertory, old and new, plus other landmarks of modern dance; and a school that will teach methodically the technique she has forged. Right now, she has a group of seven fabulous dancers and two new works for them to dance, which they did first at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina, then in September at the Kennedy Center, which is where I saw them.

Mozart Clarinet Quintet K. 581, named after its score, is the more lyric of the two pieces. It centers on three men who dance its lovely opening trio, demonstrating a fusion of macho brawn and dulcet grace. They acquire a pair of female partners, necessary to effect the intricate, dangerous-looking lifts that become an important motif – a metaphor for the myriad forms of dexterity and courage life demands – but Tharp pins our attention on the guys, who seem to grow and reveal themselves in the course of the dance, while the women remain unchanged. A playful vein running through the piece, ranging from gaiety to plain goofiness, harks back to the theatrical tradition that holds clowning to be divine.

Surfer at the River Styx matches its clamorous, foreboding score by Donald Knaack with an implied scenario of doing battle with overwhelming, perhaps cosmic, forces. Long passages of darkness and terror, of psychic and physical violence, give way to a beatific peach-glow afterlife of the sort depicted in Tharp’s earlier apocalyptic works, In the Upper Room and The Catherine Wheel. Here, as with the “Golden Section” of The Catherine Wheel, the salvation just happens, without explanation, but the superhuman efforts of a pair of heroes – who seem to be dancing themselves not to death but past death – are gritty and compelling.

Both new dances can be praised for the way in which Tharp has progressed in blending the various dance genres that are part of her vocabulary instead of just abutting them for ironic effect. And both dances can be faulted for being so packed with action, all of it of equal intensity, as to be exhausting to watch, impossible to make definitive sense of. This flaw is endemic to Tharp; it may be the necessary trade-off for the sheer virtuosity of her skills. What I regret in this recent choreography is not its refusal to guide the eye but its failure to engage the heart. Unlike the landmarks of the first half of Tharp’s career to date – among them Eight Jelly Rolls, Deuce Coupe, Push Comes to Shove, and Nine Sinatra Songs – these new dances offer very little to love.

I have no reservations, however, about the performers, who were beautiful, valiant, and constantly fascinating. The standouts were Keith Roberts, Ashley Tuttle, and especially John Selya, who seemed to be all visceral imagination. Tharp, who chooses her dancers as much for their intriguing potential as for their obvious accomplishment, understands them body and soul and is able to expand their artistry beyond what anyone might have thought possible. This is no small gift.

David Bintley, who heads up the Birmingham Royal Ballet, recently at City Center, would like to think – or have his public think – he’s propelling classical dance into the future. Are the antics in his Edward II, based on Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy of the medieval king who liked guys and died for it, examples of advanced dancing? Features of the escalating would-be outrageousness in this don’t-bring-the-kids show are the mouthing of the F-epithet with rude gestures to match; references to ejaculation such as the spitting of ostensible saliva (surely a full cup) and the excretion of ostensible urine (a pint at least) – this last on the bared, excoriated royal body; a trio for his royal highness, his thwarted consort, and his lover’s severed head; and, finally, the torture and murder of the king, climaxing in a burning pole’s being thrust up his butt. For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like, but, though it may lay some claim to being theater, it has nothing to do with dancing.

Even in less graphic moments, the ballet is pitifully short on dance impulse and dance invention. The atmospheric score commissioned from John McCabe and the matching choreography are devoid of rhythm, the heartbeat of dancing. The movement resources are feeble. Bintley confines himself to the boldly picturesque elements of the classical vocabulary such as furious turns and decorative arabesques, supplementing them, when high melodrama is called for, with writhings indiscriminately borrowed from Martha Graham. Besides lack of dance interest, the main flaw in Edward II is its ambiguous intent. It sets out to shock and seduce simultaneously, the latter through S&M titillation. The combination is unnerving – is this a turn-off or a come-on? – and the motive behind it suspect. I wondered, too, whether the large number of gay male couples in attendance found its exploitation of stereotypes offensive. The observable reaction of the audience as a whole was simply (and conspicuously) tepid. Most of us, apparently, had read the sign prominently displayed in the theater’s lobby, pre-curtain, warning us that “a loud noise” would occur in the course of the performance and were disappointed to find it a tame hollow boom.

Tobi Tobias’s new book, Obsessed by Dress, a compendium of notable quotations about fashion, has just been published by Beacon Press.

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