AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE
at the Civic Center
for Performing Arts
Last summer Twyla Tharp stopped dancing, disbanded her dance company, and joined American Ballet Theatre as artistic associate. The company’s all-Tharp program featured four dances, including Tharp’s signature The Fugue and the brand-new The Bum’s Rush. The seriousness and genuineness of the company’s commitment to Tharp is obvious. Their dancing–especially the stylistic contrasts between those ABT members who were once in Tharp’s company and those whose training was primarily traditional–suggests that the process of mutual adjustment and accommodation is anything but easy.
Tharp’s Quartet, a dance made earlier this year for ABT, features Cynthia Gregory, Cynthia Harvey, Ricardo Bustamante, and Guillaume Graffin. Set to Terry Riley’s G Song, Quartet is Tharp at her chilliest. Quartet is about structure, contrast, counterpoint, and not at all about people or personalities. The choreography demands strong, even virtuosic dancing throughout; all the steps are uniformly quick and uninflected, equally important and unimportant. Quartet’s juxtaposition of Tharp’s choreographic idiosyncrasies and a traditional vocabulary isn’t tremendously successful: it’s Tharp drained of humor, and ballet drained of musicality.
Quartet’s opening, especially its unaffected terre a terre steps for Gregory and Harvey, is engaging. But suddenly something snaps, and the dancing is severed from the score. The more the four dancers hurry to get caught up in the music again, the further they lag behind. The dance encourages us to expect some sort of correspondence, some sort of give-and-take, between the four dancers and the four instruments; if we’ve seen much of Tharp’s work, we may expect a peculiar or even an intermittent correspondence, but a correspondence nonetheless. Unfortunately certain qualities of last Saturday’s labored performance–especially the four dancers’ apparent haste and unease–obscure that structural tie between movement and score.
In Quartet, Tharp’s wonderfully weird vocabulary is reduced to catch-phrases and cliches: the dancer lifts her heel to the side and flicks it with her fingers; Gregory and Harvey balance on both pointes while Bustamante and Graffin lower them to a precarious 45 degrees; assorted jumps and miscellaneous leaps with flexed feet; oddball leg gestures and asymetric piles. If Quartet weren’t Tharp’s choreography, it would look like a cruel caricature. It doesnt look like self-parody either, but then Tharp’s work is anything but predictable.
The Fugue, a dance Tharp made for her own company in 1970, danced here by former company members Kevin O’Day, Jamie Bishton, and Daniel Sanchez, is every bit as structurally complex and emotionally neutral as Quartet. Like a musical fugue in three parts, the dance uses three “voices” in turn to introduce a short and simple movement phrase, develop one aspect of the phrase, return to the initial phrase, develop another aspect, and so on. The Fugue has no score: its only sounds are the stomps and thuds of six feet on a miked floor. The Fugue has no elaborate staging: Jennifer Tipton simply illuminates a stage stripped to its bricks; William Ivey Long clothes the trio in plain work clothes. The Fugue’s materials are minimal; the dance’s structuring and restructuring positively baroque.
The Fugue juxtaposes slow, sustained movement and queer, quick quivers, movement that is percussive and lyrical by turns. A dancer drops to kneeling in a flash, and then it takes several minutes for him to lower his torso to the floor; when the phrase is repeated by another dancer, the torso moves with unexpected swiftness. Arms wheel and swing; arm swings lead into pelvic swings. The Fugue closes with a movement phrase that has reappeared throughout the dance–standing on one bent leg, the dancer extends his other leg to the side, then suddenly slaps the floor with a flat foot–creating a comfortable sense of closure.
O’Day, Bishton, and Sanchez are so comfortable in The Fugue that their performance is entirely clear, plain, precise; and the transparency of their dancing emphasizes the dance’s structure, its repetition and reiteration, changes of direction and facing, subtle contrasts and musicality.
Tharp has a gift for making dances with smooth and polished surfaces that hide a wealth of subtle choreographic invention. The Bum’s Rush, dedicated to two longtime members of Tharp’s company, Shelley Washington and Richard Colton, is a romp, a flippant evocation of vaudeville and burlesque set to a raggy score by Dick Hyman. Santo Loquasto’s design features archaic ads for 7Up and Clabber Girl Baking Powder, packing-crate constructions reminiscent of those by Red Grooms, and costumes of tattered plaid and Vegas glitter. Pratfalls, sight gags, shaggy-dog stories: it’s very easy to be hoodwinked by the undemanding, polished surface of this dance. But The Bum’s Rush is “about” vaudeville in the same way Nine Sinatra Songs is “about” social dancing–only in the most limted, least interesting way.
Washington and Colton dance a pair of down-at-heel hoofers; Bishton, O’Day, and Sanchez are the screwballs who get most of the laughs; Elaine Kudo and Ashley Tuttle, the burlesque beauties; Sandra Brown, the animate prop; and Gil Boggs (the ABT dancer who left to join Tharp’s company in 1987 and who returned to ABT with Tharp last summer) is the straight man. Because The Bum’s Rush was not spectacular theater in its premiere, two dance sections stood out in especially sharp relief–a dazzling trompe l’oeil trio for the three men (they’re dancing in unison . . . no, they’re not . . . yes, they are . . . no, he’s turning in the opposite direction) and an extended duet contrasting Boggs’s and Colton’s very different but harmonious styles. By Saturday’s performance, nine days after the premiere, the trio’s off-color jokes and a lot of their dancing had disappeared. The pace was quicker, the sight gags sharper, the entire dance better theater; more than ever, The Bum’s Rush belonged to Colton and Boggs.
The Bum’s Rush is built around these dancers’ strengths and personalities; it’s inconceivable that the ABT dancers, or any other dancers, could step right into the central roles. Tharp’s In the Upper Room, made for her company in 1986, is as abstract as The Bum’s Rush is specific. Set to a Philip Glass score, In the Upper Room catapults its dancers into the very thick of Twarp’s vocabulary–its furious legs and loosened torso, structural intricacy and understated performance style–and the dance suits this cast, drawn from the ranks of ABT as well as from the Tharp veterans.
Like its score, In the Upper Room uses simple material repeated in increasingly complex patterns. In the opening, electronic pulses of sound translate to plain and uninflected prancing, a movement executed by different dancers at odd moments throughout the dance. In the harsh shafts of light and bright clouds of smoke created by Tipton’s design, the dancers appear out of nowhere, dance a few phrases, and disappear just as quickly. Tharp often layers the dancers in a close approximation of the score: two duets in the dimly lit background recall the underlying rhythms of the score, while new choreography–another duet–unspools at the front of the stage to accompany a fresh musical variation.
In the Upper Room asks its dancers to exploit and explode the distinctions between ballet and modern dance: to incorporate Pointe work, partnering, and elevation with athleticism, groundedness, and release. These dancers obviously relish the challenge and dance beautifully. The strength of this ensemble is its cohesiveness and freshness. And that, more than anything esle, bodes well for Twarp’s tenure at ABT.