Monday, October 19, 2015

Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary

Cal Performances presents
Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
October 18th, 2015

Much has been written in anticipation of Twyla Tharp’s 50th Anniversary Tour – diverse, thoughtful and engaging commentary on this dancemaker’s iconoclast status and incomparable contribution to dance and choreography. Now this eagerly anticipated tour is underway. And over the weekend, Tharp and her company visited Cal Performances. Rather than revisiting themes from the already published discussion, it seems right to turn the attention to the dances that are part of this exclusive program.

The afternoon kicked off the first of two preparatory fanfares, with original music by John Zorn. Trumpets sounded and two men simultaneously burst out of the wings in flight. Here was a grand announcement; a true call to witness the splendor of bodies in motion. And there was just the right amount of sass as the brief segment closed.

I wrote more notes during the Bay Area premiere of Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues than I have in a very long time, simply because each of the many vignettes had such a distinct and compelling flavor. Preludes and Fugues is a choreographic tour de force, clever and unexpected, but also a truly beautiful marriage of Tharp’s physicality and J.S. Bach’s music (from the “Well-Tempered Clavier”). Rather than giving a synopsis of each individual scene, a sampling of this unforgettable artistic composition is what follows.

The point of entry into the work was one of delightful familiarity. Tharp opened Preludes and Fugues with a subtle duet to Prelude 1 in C Major. With this well-known Baroque selection, Tharp smartly offered a scene of social dancing. Visually and audibly, this was an initial statement of egalitarianism. Then the gears shifted dramatically as Prelude 2 in C Minor sung through the air. Traditional ballet vocabulary ruled the stage until the presto portion of the piece, when whimsy took a turn in the spotlight. These first moments of Preludes and Fugues were about as different as you could imagine – and the rest of the dance held to that same surprise and excitement.  

Pictured: Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley,
Nicholas Coppula, and Eva Trapp-Coppula
Preludes and Fugues
credit: Ruven Afanador
In many of the subsequent sections, elements of fugal structure were very apparent in the choreography and staging – representations of the subject, countersubject and answer along with fugal devices like sequence, augmentation, diminution, inversion and retrograde. Dancers entered and exited the canvas at different moments with all types and styles of movement: jerky contractions; flowy waltz steps; tilted, flexed promenades in second position; battement en cloche; boxing gestures. Dynamics ranged from speedy to lush to mechanized. And from time to time, there was a sense that things were emotionally charged. It was a luxurious mélange of textures and an interdependent choreographic immersion.  

The trio formation seemed to be a favorite structure throughout Preludes and Fugues. Mid-way through, three women of the company danced an amazing unison trio – petit allegro mixed with Celtic influences and pivot turn directional shifts. It was some of the best technique of the entire program. Tharp’s expression of Fugue 11 in F Major was spellbinding. This particular key has some edge to it. Even though it is of a major quality, there’s some faint darkness lurking underneath. Tharp set a duet of quiet restraint that adeptly highlighted these dim shadows. Some of Bach’s minor key compositions end with a Picardy third, where the mediant note is raised a half a tone to create a major chord. This happened a number of times in the dance, but in one particular instance, the soloist shuddered right as that major chord struck. It was an extraordinary moment. And the piece closed with a restatement of the first prelude, though the choreography was different. The entire company joined together for a circle dance, and a few of the main movement themes recurred. But what was most striking about this last vignette was the stage patterning. The company looked like stars forming and reforming in gorgeous constellations.

If you have a chance to see Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues, you must take it. Words and descriptions are fine, but they cannot do this dance justice. It really is a masterwork by a master artist.  

The Second Fanfare was completely different from the first. A red glowing scrim was the centerpiece, which the company appeared both in front of and behind. Through this brief prologue, an eccentric group of characters was introduced, like the opening credits of a large production.

Yowzie was that larger work and it spanned a number of decades and eras. The music was early American jazz; the scenic backdrop had a 1980s graphic style to it; and the costumes crossed the hippie/bohemian generations with circus stylings and even a little of today’s hipster culture. The choreography was quite varied, but generally, Yowzie felt hard-hitting and show stopping. And it was packed with humor that veered toward the campy and farcical. 

As much as I loved Preludes and Fugues, I found Yowzie to be a bit of a mixed bag. And this wasn’t a reaction to the very different styles of the two works. Both dances were full of rich artistic material, though in Yowzie, the visuals got a little overwhelming. Just too much happening all at once. The characterizations were also a little hit or miss. For the most part, the company did a great job of bringing their zany characters to life. But there were a few that looked a little confused. Now maybe they were just playing a character that exists in that state of uncertainty. Totally fine. But if that was the case, it didn’t read particularly well or clearly from the stage.

Having said that, Yowzie had moments of real brilliance and sheer joy, which is why for me, it was a mixed bag. The male Burlesque duet (John Selya and Ron Todorowski) was phenomenal. Complete with mimed make-up applications, some warm-up burpees, and spot-on dancing, what a wonderful scene! Matthew Dibble’s featured solo brought together sexy old-school jazz with some well-placed hip-hop and acrobatics. Savannah Lowery and Kaitlyn Gilliland’s turning series was lavish and impressive, especially with the large black hats they were wearing. And when the entire cast returned to the stage in the final segment, there was a choreographic party like no other.

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