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Twyla Tharp Dance at Centre East, Skokie, Illinois, Jan. 31, 2003

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Twyla Tharp Dance, a company of three women and five men, showed a short (hour-and-a-half, including intermission) program of three works in the 1800-seat Centre East Theatre, and I didn't quite get it. Maybe if I saw it again... Maybe there is less to get, compared to the last two weekends, when I saw MCB in south Florida.

Tharp's program opened with "Westerly Round", a playful ten-minute piece to vaguely country-like music; the choreography was energetic and flowing but not inevitable, and there were lots and lots of turns. Maybe it's me, but lots of turns comes over as thin. There were some Tharpisms, contrary snaps of the head, a couple of strolling steps followed by a sudden resumption of frenetic movement, and so on; well, and why not? But much of her vocabulary seemed to be more generic or somehow less recognizable than years ago.

With "Even the King", acccompanied at a closer distance by Johann Strauss's "Kaiserwalzer", Op. 437, arranged for a small chamber group by Arnold Schoenberg, we had situations, although no plot that I noticed: One odd man out (Matthew Dibble?), distinguished also by a uniformly gray costume as well as a follow spot, can't get a partner, and can't figure out why. The choreography develops here too, ebbing and flowing, easily incorporating balletic bits, but the groupings, entrances, exits, etc., don't seem much motivated by the music, the twenty-minute series of waltzes just marking off a series of dances. Near the end, he's had it, and sits in a clump downstage right; one of the women dances in upstage left, alone. Are they finally going to Get Together? No, the others (in handsomely colored dress, all by Santo Loquasto) also appear, for another round of changing combinations, and exit. Our man in gray gets up, walks to the lone chair (throne?) upstage, and drags it into the wing as the curtain falls.

I've seen too many unnecessary dappled glades which obscure the dancing by inadequately lighting the dancers, but not so here: Jim French, the lighting designer, has contrived to project a floor of black and white diamond-shaped tiles to contribute to the evocation of a royal nineteenth-century ballroom which begins with Strauss's music, and still throws plenty of light on the dancers. Just right; a painted setting would have been all wrong.

After intermission, "Surfer at the River Styx", with six dancers and at about forty minutes' length, was the Big Deal of the evening, but Donald Knaack's rythmically monotonous loud score provided no plan I could discern for the varied groups of dancers in it, and so the prolific flow of dance ideas looked arbitrary though often highly talented (lots and lots of turns here too, nearly always to the right); at least the dancers looked fine in it, owing partly to Tharp's effective organization of the stage space - expertly accomodated by Scott Zielinski's underworldly lighting, which never lit the whole stage - so that you could nearly always see them well, in contrast to the ballet premiers I'd seen last fall, in which dancers were often clumped obscurely together, and also owing to the strong line of the dancers themselves. And not the least arbitrary-seeming bit was a short, tacked-on coda, to quieter music by David Kahne, in which Lynda Sing, I believe, was carried off aloft in a split by the rest of the ensemble. Apotheosis? Of what?

So in spite of the highly professional surfaces, I found little to involve me in these dances, compared to, say, "As Time Goes By", "Push comes to Shove", and "The Golden Section".

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Excellent review, more clearly expressed than my impressions that I posted on another dance forum... but I thought I'd put them here too, just for comparison sake (of Tharp's performance, not particularly my writing skills or lack thereof) [Oddly enough, her company's performance was advertised by a photo of Hubbard Street dancers doing "I Remember Clifford"] Performance was April 8, 2003:

Well, I'm not a huge Tharp fan. Her stuff is fun to shoot, it's so suitable for close-up most of the time, in fact I think a lot of her work maybe is better on film than on stage. Its so post-modernly full of clutter... or is it so postmodernly cluttered with references...  

Jorgensen Auditorium is a god awful space to perform in. The sound system must be one of the worst out there, for starters. It's kind of a boxy cavern, no fly space. And then there's the seating. This time we got our tickets months in advance so I hoped good seats would improve the experience. Unfortunately 10 rows back from the stage are horrible seats. In fact, anything in the front section, until the seats begin to rise, is miserable.... that is unless you don't think it's important to see below mid shin on a dancer (and I'm tall, I can't imagine being short and trying to see). So we moved back after the 1st piece. Actually, it was a pleasure to see how full the house was considering the local obsession with winning the national women's basketball title, the final game being played concurrent with the concert. But god bless them, they do have a dance series, after all, and you can't see stuff like this in Connecticut's capitol.

"Westerly Round"? I felt like I had seen it all before in everything else Tharp has done. I know there's some pre-occupation with artists developing an easily recognizable style, as if that in itself was their goal. Tharp has certainly done that. But I don't know, is that enough in itself? After a while it all starts to look alike.

The dancers, are of course, virtuostic, but the choreographic phrasing doesn't give you space to savor it. I often feel Tharp is like a jazz riff of skat singing with constant "ta-da!" intermixed with "dibble dibble dibble". Of course, I don't understand Jazz either. The phrasing looks very much at home to jazz music but to classical music, I find it dis-musical, to come up with a very lame word. Tharp seems to use music as a soundscape rather than as an embodiment. It bothers me in "Even The King" to Strauss' Emperor Waltz. This was no "Vienna Waltzes". It was as if she were trying to work in the ballet idiom, but couldn't really relate to the music. Oh yeah, sure I don't think dance should forever be chained to the music, and of course there is plenty of very tacky almost camp "music visualizations"... but I don't think dance should ignore music, at least not when it's music that is trying so hard to make you dance.  

"She's as successful as an artist can be, ...alive..." was my husband's intermission comment, "what remains to be seen is how successful she will be after her death". Okay, so that wasn't a direct quote... I'm sure he said it better than that.

"Surfer at the River Styx"

Fraught with non-meaning.  

But it is interesting to see Tharp abandon her constant visual poliphony and take up more traditional compositional groupings. Hey, there's even symmetry here. Interesting soundscape by Donald Knaack... very evocative of "Apocalypse Now" for me... not sure exactly why. Here Tharp gives us some visual space to soak in her imagery. It is much appreciated by the audience. The score has this disco driving drum subcarrier... not all sounding like the BeeJees & company but relentless like disco beat was nonetheless. I don't think it would be right for future dance historians to discuss Tharp without considering Baryshnikov & Studio 57. Not that I was ever there, but a lot of this stuff would have been a thing on the dance floor. It's hard not to see Baryshnikov in the choreography.  

The audience gave it a standing ovation. I gave the dancers a standing ovation, what with their working so hard out here on a one night stand in the boondocks. My husband was crazy about it.

I felt rather jaded.

Or perhaps I'm just annoyed that the advertised Q&A session never materialized. "Canceled" is what the tech people said. Supposedly because of the basketball game. I suspect it was cancelled long before that.

I wanted to know whether there is a "Tharp" style dancer in performance or if it's just their ability to pick up steps quickly that qualifies them. I thought one of the male dancers, though a beautiful technician, was just too "clean", too "correct" to be convincing in some of the work... Emily Coates did a good job of seeming to be a regular person on stage. Oh, and apropos to one of the other current threads, the other female dancer performing, Lynda Sing, graduated from Butler University. I wanted to ask her if she regretted that, since some people seem to think college is a waste of time for young dancers. But really, I wanted to ask Tharp her thoughts on the life of her work after her death. I believe Hubbard Street paid her a million dollars a piece back in the 1990s. Its great to see choreography so valued. But is it more important to the work's longevity for it to be in everyone's repertory than to have a high price for obtaining it? Of course, Tharp wouldn't have come & answered questions at a gig like this.

And of course, now I have no answer on why the concert was sold with pictures of Hubbard Street performing a work that wasn't on the bill for the evening.


~Amy, imbedded in rural NE backwater

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Thanks for the nice words, Amy!

Your post reads as though we saw pretty much the same performances, allowing for the differences in the ways we wrote about it, and that gives me a heartening sense of having seen with some objectivity what was really there, if it was like that for you, too.

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What a way to start a thread--two detailed, well written and informative posts.

Together, although obviously written at different times and in different places, they give a delicious sense of being there.

Music, lighting, costumes, personal impressions, limitations caused by the performing/viewing space, description of movement, comparisons with works that are more familiar to the reader than those presented.

BalletTalk has a real depth of observing and writing talent.

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Thanks Jack! Hi Ed! Jack, I've been wondering... could they possibly have used that Hubbard Street photo to advertise Tharp Dance in Chicago? It seems like someone would call the bluff in a town where Ron DeJesus is so well known. Do you remember what the photo publicity was for the event at Centre East?

And yes, reading your review was very heartening. The traditional press didn't catch the performance as acurately as you did. I really felt we had seen the same performance.

Tharp has reached that golden age now where critics seem afraid to critique, whereas people like me figure if we're being shown "genius" then it ought to be held to a gold standard. International superstars get the rough treatment.

With no understudies listed, did you wonder as I did what would happen in case of injury? It looked like pretty difficult stuff. Or do you think she has so many stand-by artists who have worked with her in the past that it wasn't a particular worry?

Oh, and at U-Conn, Jim French's lighting was stark, but we were not treated to the diamond flooring effect. (probably because of some inadequacy of the Jorgensen facility... we regularly have whole sets eliminated when the russian ballet pick-up companies come through).

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