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Marvelous Dancing Highlights Twyla Tharp and Three Dances

by Mindy Aloff
August 10, 2016
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800
Although I'm in the minority, I loved this group of dances, together and individually. For me, the program Twyla Tharp and Three Dances on July 14 at The Joyce Theater, represents Tharp's grappling over time with the nature of artistic ideals. The musicality of the oldest dance is unlike that of the other two: I speak of "Country Dances," from 1976, to a variety of fiddle tunes. The casting is a furtive nod to George Balanchine's Apollonian quartets—one man and three women—yet with a twist; that is, the man does not exert power over his dance partners but is simply a participant in the group, and the ladies, despite their flirtations and momentary alliances, certainly don't glorify him. Everyone is equal in terms of presence, formal importance, and, insofar as possible, physical leverage. This condition holds for the relationship of choreography and music: Although the dance phrases acknowledge the rhythms of the songs, the dances do not necessary observe cadences. The movement spills where it wants when it wants, and sometimes that is between songs and across bar lines. Devised originally for the half-hour, 1977 PBS program “Making Television Dance,” which Tharp put together with director Don Mischer, "Country Dances" was performed live before it was aired. Its original cast of Tom Rawe, Shelley Washington, Jennifer Way, and Christine Uchida performed it theatrically in that first year on bills that also featured Tharp's austerely architectural and uncompromising dance without musical accompaniment, from 1970, The Fugue. In that context, "Country Dances" provided, so to speak, the diastolic relaxation of tension in the heart after the tension of the systolic contraction. That memorable original cast did indeed convey the feeling of flow and fill, slither and slink; and I arrived at the Joyce expecting to find those elements changed. Yet they weren't at all! The current dancers (longtime Tharp star John Selya with Kaitlin Gilliland, Amy Ruggiero, and Eva Trapp) have their own physical charms and performing personalities, but the combination results in the lovely, good-natured play that characterized the dancing in 1976.

The companion dances, both to Romantic masterpieces, one by Beethoven and one by Brahms, work differently in terms of their relation to their music. For those, the composer, so to speak, calls the tune; even when the relationship is conversational rather than imitative, the choreography showcases what one listens to, helping this listener, at least, to hear instrumental phrases and compare them to kinesthetic phrases, or to discover the drama, even the shock, of a sudden cadence. "Beethoven Opus 130" is set to excerpts, including the monumental “Grosse Fuge,” from one of the composer's last and most beloved string quartets. The images of the dance present an heroic protagonist (danced by Matthew Dibble) interacting—sometimes with dignity, other times creeping, Nebuchadnezzar-fashion, half-naked, in apparent distress, on all fours—with a world of men and women who alternately mirror him, enact suggestions to him, impede him, and, in one, ethereal, shadowy section with Gilliland, lead him into heartbreaking weather. That is, the images are quasi-biographical concerning Beethoven, the man, and are ultimately tragic as well as noble. Even so, below that drama is the layer of analysis that always serves as the bedrock in a Tharp work. In this case, the juxtaposition of choreographic rhythms to musical rhythms, and the unexpected ways the choreographer has visualized musical procedures through movement are emphatically related to Beethoven's obsession with the making of fugues. "Country Dances" is eternal, but Beethoven Opus 130, brand-new this past June, offers the prospect for a longtime Tharp watcher to see the maturing of the choreographer's dance imagination since 1970. I found this pairing marvelous.

The third dance, the 1980 "Brahms Paganini" (to the complete Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Opus 35, of Johannes Brahms), I also saw in its first year. It consists of two movements: a long, rigorously structured, classically tempered, purifying solo for a male dancer—here, Reed Tankersley (I saw Richard Colton dance it in 1980)—followed by a kind of abstract revue for an ensemble.
Tharp has worked beneficially with several theme-and-variations works by Brahms for American Ballet Theatre, and this one for Twyla Tharp and Three Dances is also full of nuance as well as passages of breathtaking musical virtuosity. Gilliland—a dancer who stands, I believe, some six feet tall in her socks—has a most elegant solo of slinging angles and sparkling lines, and she deserves the acclaim she has received for it. But all the dancers performed with admirable precision and beautiful phrasing. The others in this instance were: Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelly, Amy Ruggiero, and Nicholas Coppula.
Dancers Eva Trapp (front) and Kaitlyn Gilliland in Twyla Tharp's 'Country Dances'

Dancers Eva Trapp (front) and Kaitlyn Gilliland in Twyla Tharp's "Country Dances"

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Dancers (L-R) Nicholas Coppula, Amy Ruggiero and Daniel Baker in Twyla Tharp's 'Brahms Paganini.'

Dancers (L-R) Nicholas Coppula, Amy Ruggiero and Daniel Baker in Twyla Tharp's "Brahms Paganini."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Dancers Matthew Dibble and Kaitlyn Gilliland in Twyla Tharp's 'Beethoven Opus 130.'

Dancers Matthew Dibble and Kaitlyn Gilliland in Twyla Tharp's "Beethoven Opus 130."

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu

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