(ABT photo by Lois Greenfield, Joffrey photo by Herbert Migdoll)
Thoroughly modern - and steps ahead of her time
Cal Performances offers a master class (or three) in the seminal work of choreographer Twyla Tharp
| 03 October 2007
When the Joffrey Ballet premiered Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe in 1973, it shook up the traditionalists in its audience. Set to the music of the Beach Boys, Deuce Coupe featured a ballerina calmly dancing through the ABCs of the entire ballet vocabulary of technique while other dancers jubilantly moved around her, wearing bright clothing and referencing popular dances of the day in their movements. During each performance, graffiti artists worked upstage from the dancers, spray-painting paper on long scrolls that were pulled up and used as the backdrop once a section was complete.
(Greg Gorman photo)
"Something like this has not been done before, and I don't know when it will be done again," says Cole.
The Joffrey Ballet will kick off the focus on Twyla Tharp tonight (Thursday, Oct. 4) through Saturday, Oct. 6, with a program that includes Deuce Coupe. Next up will be the Miami City Ballet, Oct. 26-28, with American Ballet Theatre completing the hat trick Nov. 7-11. The companies will perform works by Tharp that debuted between 1973 and 1986, including Deuce Coupe, Nine Sinatra Songs, In the Upper Room, Baker's Dozen, and Sinatra Suite. (For program details, see "Totally Twyla," at right.) In addition, a host of lectures will flesh out the stories about Tharp, her dances, and her influence on American dance.
Tharp's work is "original, physical, and contemporary," says dance critic Marcia Siegel, who recently published Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance (2007), an in-depth examination of the choreographer's oeuvre and dancers. Siegel clarifies that by "contemporary" she means Tharp is "with the times. She's not wedded to any sort of style or vocabulary."
With Deuce Coupe Tharp loudly proclaimed that the boundaries between ballet and modern dance are artificial, says Siegel. Although such melding of styles isn't radical today, when Robert Joffrey invited Tharp to choreograph a piece for his company, dancers "rebelled and didn't want to be in it because they were tied to classical ballet," recalls Henry Berg, who danced in Deuce Coupe when it debuted in 1973.
Two years earlier, Tharp had upset the dance world when she set Eight Jelly Rolls to the music of early-20th-century jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. "That was a real shocker," says Siegel, because most modern dancers through the 1920s, '30s, and '40s - though "determined to be modern" - did not use jazz. "The modern dancers considered their work 'high art,' so they would only use classic music or sometimes folk."
Avant-garde dancers "weren't supposed to use popular music. If anything, they would have music written for them, or they employed it in a way that was completely incidental," says Siegel. Dancers such as Tricia Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Lucinda Childs "all wanted a bigger audience, but their work was not accessible," she explains. Tharp, on the other hand, dared to entertain audiences with Eight Jelly Rolls, a piece that used jazz and big, explosive dance movements.
Siegel, a longtime dance critic with the Hudson Review and reviewer for the Boston Phoenix since 1996, has followed Tharp's work since 1967. "Good choreography is very rare when you get right down to it," she says, and Tharp "was extraordinary and distinctive from the word go. I have never felt there was anyone comparable to her in terms of talent and originality."
After Deuce Coupe, Tharp went on to choreograph works to the music of such disparate composers and performers as Willie "The Lion" Smith (Baker's Dozen, 1979), David Byrne (The Catherine Wheel, 1981), Frank Sinatra (Nine Sinatra Songs, 1982), and Philip Glass (In the Upper Room, 1986). She also choreographed dance in three films by Milos Forman: Hair (1970), Ragtime (1981), and Amadeus (1984), as well as in White Nights (1985), directed by Taylor Hackford and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. In recent years Tharp has turned to Broadway, choreographing dance musicals, including Movin' Out (set to the music of Billy Joel) and The Times They Are a-Changin', featuring the lyrics and music of Bob Dylan.
Tharp, now 66, won't be in attendance at the upcoming Berkeley performances. She's hard at work on a commissioned piece for the Miami City Ballet, set to a new score by Elvis Costello. "She's always looking forward to the future," says Cole, who first presented the Twyla Tharp Dance Company in the late '70s. "She doesn't look back. That's our job."