What makes a legend? Studying under other legends such as Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham? Choreographing one hundred-sixty works, twelve TV specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows, and two figure skating routines? Receiving one Tony, two Emmys, the National Medal of the Arts, nineteen honorary doctorates and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship? A “yes” to any one of the preceding questions would have placed someone squarely in the legend category, but a “yes” to every question? You might expect a lineage tracing back to Olympus. Such Herculean efforts, however, belong to Twyla Tharp, who is celebrating her fiftieth season with all new works. Take that in: with five decades of work behind her, Tharp continues to create new pieces.
This past weekend, Newman Center Presents kick started it’s 2015-2016 season with Tharp’s 50 Anniversary Tour. The top of the NCP Program states: “Simply put, PRELUDES AND FUGUES is the world as it ought to be, YOWZIE as it is. THE FANFARES celebrates both.” – Twyla Tharp, 2015. THE FIRST FANFARE begins with music by John Zorn performed by The Practical Trumpet Society. The dancers, dressed in simple costumes designed by long-time Tharp collaborator Santo Loquasto – beige-toned shirts and pants for the men and skirted leotards for the women, each in a different color – move across the stage with the grace of ballerinas, the masterful ease of professional athletes, the comic timing of the Three Stooges.
As the company transitions into PRELUDES AND FUGUES, influenced after Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, Tharp’s mastery of emotion and structure is clear. She effortlessly slides from somber to slap-stick and back again in seconds without ever a jarring or awkward transition. The formal aspects, while clearly tightly controlled, maintain a fluidity and an intuitiveness to them. In her ongoing blog posts for The New York Times, Tharp describes struggling with dance in the face of 9/11: “How, I asked myself, was I to justify working on a Broadway show when all around there was only evidence of human destruction? How to justify dancing? Huge headlines were everywhere: WTC I/II down. Suddenly I flashed on another WTC I/II. ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier Volumes I/II’ is the title of Bach’s two-volume set of 48 paired preludes and fugues. I had Prelude in C major of Volume 1 on my laptop and I began to dance.” In a post-9/11 world, we need the arts more than ever, perhaps, to keep track of our humanity. Tharp epitomizes that humanity in PRELUDES AND FUGUES, echoing in her choreography the exact human complexity she sees in Bach: “[it] is encyclopedic, it has so many different possibilities of color and form and emotion, a compendium of keys and rhythm, improvisation and intense structural complexity, the simplest of beautiful tunes.”
After intermission, the SECOND FANFARE opens with the dancers silhouetted against a bright red screen. Their elaborate headware and costumes create expressionistic, almost bird-like shadows and forms that flit across the stage. Visually striking, the piece starts to feel more animalistic, less cerebral than the previous work. By the opening of YOWZIE, it’s clear that any and all ego or super-ego from PRELUDES AND FUGUES are gone, replaced by pure id. The costumes from SECOND FANFARE, now seen under traditional stage lighting, are a riotous clash of tie-dye, pattern and color. The piece, set to American jazz, feels like a speakeasy-meets-improv-comedy theater jam-packed with shtick and folly as the dysfunctional couple in the performance disintegrate before coming back together again. The man questions his sexuality; at one point, the woman believes she’s a gorilla. This work is the antithesis to the controlled PRELUDES AND FUGUES. While the audience members were definitely more engaged during YOWZIE with their chuckles and guffaws, the loud costumes, garish backdrop and wild choreography was much too much stimulation for this reviewer. If YOWZIE is the world as it is with its constant onslaught of information, feeds, and opinions, I’ll hide out in Bach’s fugues.
As my friend said after the show, “It’s hard to believe the same person created both pieces.” The fact that such two disparate works could spring from the same mind, speaks to Tharp’s continued talent, one that can mirror our current frenzied state and give us hope to move past it.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServingand Quaint Magazine.