at the Shubert Theatre, October


By Laura Molzahn

Most great artists seem to develop some form of the Henry James syndrome: as he got older he became more peculiarly himself–his sentences got even more convoluted and subtle, and so did his characters’ psychology. But I don’t find Twyla Tharp becoming more herself as she approaches 60. Instead she’s becoming more ordinary, more a pale or distorted copy of herself. Perhaps she’s spread too thin. Her recent concert at the Shubert, three dances vaguely connected by an “ages of man” theme, revealed a wealth of ideas and not quite enough choreographic elbow grease or imagination.

The best of the bunch was the first. Though in some ways it doesn’t look like Tharp, it has more of her ingenuity than the others. Set to early American devotional music sung a cappella–a brilliant choice in itself–Sweet Fields is uncharacteristically slow at times and uncharacteristically moving. Sometimes emotion has been a side effect of her dancers’ tremendous energy and skill, but here I thought she was aiming for it, in the hands pulled to the face, or the forearms and palms offered to the audience or to God. There’s often a feeling in Sweet Fields that the stage air is thick and that the motions of work and prayer are being sucked back by some invisible force.

At other times the dancing is more typical of Tharp, quick and light: little hops, tiny running steps, a jig. The feet are soft yet precise. Sometimes the dancing is full force, sweeping drops and rolls on the floor or, in the work’s signature motion, a big swing of the leg up and out with a flexed foot, as if the dancer’s sole were praising God. In the joyous “Jordan” the men toss the women from a lift right into the air. The next section, “Brevity,” is a spare solo primarily repeating one phrase: in a lunge, Roger Jeffrey pulls an arm in abruptly, holds it, then his legs soften and he jumps and flicks a foot out several times. Though the music is flowing, he is not.

Sweet Fields reminds me of a much earlier Tharp dance, Baker’s Dozen, perhaps because both feature flowing white costumes: innocent, childlike, these pieces revel in a sense of play. Drawing on Tharp’s Quaker background and on Shaker forms, Sweet Fields sets up the dances that follow, on adolescence and middle age in an individual’s life and in the life of the country. 66 takes its title from the famous highway and its music from “bachelor pad” numbers of the late 50s and early 60s. Images of Rock Hudson and Doris Day kept popping unwanted into my brain. Like Bum’s Rush–which Tharp made for one of the country’s premiere companies, American Ballet Theatre–this dance shoves its vulgarity in our face and asks what we’re going to do about it. Like that dance, it also features a dancing tire.

In 66 Tharp reveals the country at a kind of crossroads between innocence and cynical experience, just as adolescents are at a crossroads between being kids and being grown-ups. The costumes’ motif is blue denim, but some of the dancers wear farmerish overalls while the others wear the tight jeans and T-shirts of hipsters. Everyone pretends to be cool with sex, which is in the air. In “Sexe” the Couple (Julie Stahl and Andrew Robinson) give amour a funny, earnest, embarrassed innocence–she giggles when he pivots her sideways like a cardboard cutout–but their duet in “Sleep Walk” is genuinely hot. “Spring, Sprang, Sprung” seems to be about boys’ ancient nemesis, the prick tease. And right in the midst of all this young and foolish flailing is an old geezer with a cane. (His solo, “Foolin’ Around,” is one of the high points, as his clockwork steps and twitches keep time with the mechanical music, then evolve into free and easy hoofing.)

But except for the broad outlines of meaning, I don’t get 66. What’s the old man doing in it? And the tire? (Actually two dancing tires, one male and one female.) I know the dance is about a highway, but this is ridiculous: 66 is Tharp at her geekiest. And the work she recently made for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, I Remember Clifford, is also about geekiness and about adolescence during the same era. But in 66 the theme of the outcast, in the form of a misfit character, is played for laughs: the female member (Gabrielle Malone) of the trio in overalls swaggers around in her paperboy cap, trying to be one of the guys and failing. I couldn’t help seeing her as the teenage Tharp, a little gauche, a little brash, capable of acting sexy but not wanting a boyfriend–wanting to run with the boys instead.

Among internationally recognized contemporary choreographers Tharp is unusual: she’s a woman. One problem among the many she must have encountered, given her few choreographic models, is what to do with male dancers. The great women–Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan–focused on women. And though no one thought twice about George Balanchine taking serial ballerinas as his muses, ballets focused on men seem to throw everyone for a loop. Modern Western dance rarely takes the male as its subject or muse. This innate difficulty for a heterosexual woman choreographer, combined with Tharp’s thwarted identification with her father (which she talks about in her autobiography), seems to have produced an obsession with the manly man.

Hence the third dance on the program, Heroes. This is a very strange work, full of affecting kinetic moments and puzzling tangents. Its centerpiece is three male dancers (Jeffrey, Robinson, and Matt Rivera) in silver pants so shiny they fill the stage with flashing light: the Lone Ranger rides again. The men’s characteristic pose is a wide-legged stance with chests out, hands on hips; in the first section, “Heroes,” they’re fairly assaulted by the other dancers but stand their ground, ducking blows or wavering under them but keeping their balance. It’s a cliched image of the hero nuanced by the men’s flexibility, which allows them to absorb or deflect hostility.

Part of the problem with Heroes is Philip Glass’s dull composition of the same name, based on a David Bowie-Brian Eno album of the late 70s. Only the last section, “V2 Schneider,” reveals Glass’s characteristic underlying surge; the choreography for this section likewise recalls the wavelike energy of Tharp’s In the Upper Room and the ensemble sections of Nine Sinatra Songs. The rest of the piece seems crammed with ideas acted out rather than carried out with some dance ingenuity. In “Sense of Doubt,” for example, one of the heroes inexplicably turns against another. In “Neukoln” a woman throws herself repeatedly against the lined-up heroes; Tharp explains this in an interview (included in a program insert) as being “about how men and women have to deal with the actual world. Something is hurled at them, and they’ve got to decide how they stand.”

It doesn’t read that way; it reads like a pitched battle between men and women. It reminded me of an incident Tharp describes in her autobiography: when she was a child her mother and father got into an argument in the kitchen, and her father, who was not usually a violent man, ended up hurling a hatchet at her mother’s head–the only time she remembers them fighting. Then he left home for two days: “I can still feel the terror of those forty-eight hours when my father was gone,” Tharp writes. From the way she describes the incident, her mother had provoked it by hurling verbal hatchets at her dad; in Heroes the woman’s body itself is the missile, but the man–the true hero–doesn’t respond in kind. Nor does he leave: he stands his ground. Heroes is unsettling because it’s packed with emotion–in this repeated action Tharp seems to be rewriting her personal history–but the emotion isn’t motivated, and its details are obscure because the choreography isn’t well enough developed.

You’ve got to hand it to Tharp in one way: she hasn’t filled these works with her trademark squiggles. In Sweet Fields she seems to be searching for a new vocabulary, and she succeeds up to a point. But 66 and Heroes, dances closely tied by their music and themes to Tharp’s own life, are filled largely with that life, not with the transformations a great artist makes in her work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Gregg Gorman.