DALLAS — After making dances for half a century, Twyla Tharp could have celebrated with a victory lap, assembling an elite crew of dancers to tour a greatest-hits program sampling some of the dazzling works that long ago earned her a ranking among the greatest and most influential of American choreographers. Instead, for the 50th-anniversary tour that opened at the Winspear Opera House here on Friday and will conclude in New York in November, Ms. Tharp has fashioned a pair of new pieces: “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie.”
These are unmistakably the work of a master. There is so much in them: so much variety, so much life. But not, truly, so much that is new. Individually and together, the works come across as summations, compendiums of what Ms. Tharp has learned and discovered over the decades about dance and making dances.
“Preludes and Fugues” is set to Bach’s encyclopedic “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and although Ms. Tharp doesn’t include a prelude and fugue from every key, as Bach did, her choreography does encompass heavy slowness and floor-skimming speed, the simple and the complex, foreground and background, comedy and despair, flirtatious sparring and romantic surrender, moves from ballet and moves from sports, in sequence and at the same time.
She has written about how several sections of “Preludes and Fugues” include tributes to choreographers who influenced her early on: Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. But these tributes aren’t quotes or even pastiche, and they aren’t confined to the sections she’s mentioned. Ms. Tharp is an artist of synthesis, and the influences (including that of the rarely mentioned precursor, Paul Taylor, in whose company Ms. Tharp briefly danced) were absorbed decades ago. There’s nothing in the piece that you couldn’t call Tharpian.
It begins with a man and a woman (John Selya and Savannah Lowery) in a ballroom embrace, swaying to the arpeggios of the Prelude No. 1 in C as if in one of Ms. Tharp’s dances to Sinatra songs. The mixing of Bach and ballroom is very Tharp. It’s not ironic; it’s assimilative, it’s let’s-have-it-all. She claims Bach as she claims ballet. She understands the logic of a fugue, so she can have her 12 dancers match the music exactly or play cat-and-mouse games with it, respect its decorum or ruffle it.
The music for “Yowzie” is New Orleans jazz, mainly old Jelly Roll Morton songs recently recorded by Henry Butler with Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9. Here, Ms. Tharp quotes herself, including phrases from her “Eight Jelly Rolls,” the 1971 work that showed how well she could absorb jazz and its humor.
“Eight Jelly Rolls” contained a great drunk dance. “Yowzie” could be about drunks on Bourbon Street. It’s a comedy that sustains multiple story lines with a freewheeling momentum. Amid expertly placed vaudeville gags, there’s a sense of where-did-that-come-from wildness. The 45-year-old Mr. Selya, who for years has embodied Ms. Tharp’s vision of a regular guy, minces on his tiptoes. That’s new.
What isn’t new is Ms. Tharp’s galvanizing effect on dancers. Unlike other choreographers who have reached the 50-year mark (Cunningham, Taylor), Ms. Tharp hasn’t maintained a company. Some of the 12 here, like Mr. Selya, Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto (who sometimes resembles a Tharp clone), have joined her in project after project. Some, like Ms. Lowery, taking a break from New York City Ballet, are new to her. But they are all the kind of dancer whom Ms. Tharp invented, casual virtuosos comfortable with her ecumenical style. And though she has been known to push performers into exaggeration, on Friday all of these charmers looked relaxed and unforced.
The effect Ms. Tharp had on American dance in the 1970s was revolutionary, yet she was never really about the new. “Deuce Coupe,” her 1973 work for the Joffrey Ballet that allowed modern dance to mingle with classical ballet as never before, was set to Beach Boys songs already years old. It incorporated the past of her childhood and of her parents into the past of ballet. Its vernacular steps and attitudes came from the 1950s and ’60s. “Movin’ Out,” her 2002 Broadway musical to Billy Joel songs, was about the ’60s, too. Nothing in “Preludes and Fugues” or “Yowzie” is any more up-to-date.
The pairing of Bach and jazz, like the pairing of ragtime and Haydn in her 1976 “Push Comes to Shove,” is classic Tharp. In a program note, she characterizes “Preludes and Fugues” as “the world as it ought to be” and “Yowzie” as the world “as it is.” But that dichotomy is neater than her art, which is never satisfied with one thing or the other. “Preludes” resolves where it began, in a circle that has widened to include the whole cast, whereas “Yowzie” ends in arrested motion, with the dancers coming straight at us. But both works are about the world as it is, the world as she made it, retrospective after all. As Ms. Tharp said in a post-show Q. and A.: “There’s no getting away from the past, folks. I’ve tried.”
By: Brian Seibert
Originally post in The New York Times. Read the original article here.