It’s hard, but not impossible, to remember when Twyla Tharp was seen as some kind of bomb thrower. When Deuce Coupé premiered at the New York City Center in 1973, the New York Times wrote, “Twyla Tharp does a piece for the spring season of City Center Joffrey Ballet, and the dance world is amazed. The idea of one of the most important and radical young dancer-choreographers teaming up with a ballet company is unusual, but Tharp and Joffrey both like to be first. Recorded to popular songs by the Beach Boys, Deuce Coupé was the first crossover ballet: classical positions mixed with stylized quotes from 60s dances like the frog, spinning legs and pas de deux dissolving into a small shimmy of the shoulders. The whole work is a marvel of motionless activity, like a Calder mobile moving on its axes. Tharp was 31 years old.
Half a century later, City Center marks Tharp’s 80th anniversary with Twyla now, an ambitious program featuring dancers chosen by Tharp from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theater (ABT) and New York City Ballet, which shaped Tharp’s career as much as confident enthusiasm by Bob Joffrey.
Deuce Coupé was also Tharp’s first collaboration with City Center, but his relationship with the institution and ABT goes further back and has been formative. When Tharp arrived in New York City in the early 1960s, she knew a lot about ballet, tap dancing, music theory, baton, German and shorthand – the product of the dreamy and wide educational program of mind of her mother – but nothing about modern dance until she studied with Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham at ABT. In 1963, she joined Paul Taylor’s company, then left to found her own. Cash-strapped, dancers rehearsed in condemned buildings (“gymnasiums that were missing a half-story or something,” says Tharp), sometimes sneaking into the city center to practice on an unattended mezzanine. .
Tharp’s early work bears the imprint of his early teachers. A 1965 performance at Hunter College featured Martha Graham-style costumes, puffy plastic sheets, and unrolling white spirals. Cunningham was, says Tharp, “an extraordinary visual education” in disciplined coordination, with “a deep sense of drama.” Graham was a theatrical education, in a full repertoire of techniques just to drop, and informed overdone comedy and faux pas from beloved works like Bix parts and Eight Jelly Rolls. “The clowns”, as Tharp likes to say, “are very close to God”. The beginnings in the city center of Demeter and Persephone (1993), performed by the Graham company only a few years after Graham’s death, is both homage and pure Tharp: painful gestures and upset poses that recall the Clytemnestra, but set to klezmer music.
At the height of its powers, Tharp’s work shows a performative and clownish ease always in tension with a formal precision, which the Times once called it “ironic populism”. His career is an inviting Mad Libs: David Byrne and Billy Joel, Milos Forman and Jerome Robbins. She stuck Mikhail Baryshnikov in a melon and let him squeeze between ballet twists and slumps The push comes to the push. She once prompted an overly busy Philip Glass to provide new work for a ballet – the Celestial Clock of In the upper room-with “Look, Phil, just some music after breakfast every day.”
His choreography is shaped by momentum and traction, arcs that are followed and studied, rather than being stopped in midair or thrown with artificial enthusiasm. She makes voracious and playful use of space and perception, throwing dancers to the edge of the audience’s peripheral vision or compacting them into tight bundles of movement. There is also a multilingual quality to Tharp’s musical vocabulary, which moves fluently through the history of popular dance: the pony, the twist, the vaudeville pratfalls. Well Named, Twyla now opens with corn bread, set to music by Carolina Chocolate Drops. Former Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens is a soul mate, another artist-historian in the American tradition, known for digging into and highlighting the African influence on American roots music. The duo of Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia, essentially a tarantella, places a vernacular emphasis on classical ballet forms.
The middle of the program consists of work drawn from Tharp’s deep archives. Pergolesi brings to life a fragmented duo that Tharp once performed on tour with Baryshnikov. Robbie Fairchild takes on the original role of Tharp, dancing with stiff precision as Sara Mearns, as Baryshnikov, mirrors it with lazy ease, almost behind the beat. Down to earth, athletic Second duet is adapted from a series of duets that Tharp composed some thirty years ago but never performed. The work stars James Gilmer and Jacquelin Harris and is based on the work of contemporary composer Thomas Larcher. Mumien, a disturbing staccato for cello and prepared piano that opens like a fire of four alarms.
Twyla now ends with an ensemble piece on Brahms op. 120 for piano and clarinet, played here by the viola, one of Tharp’s first instruments. The main couples return, accompanied by a suite of six talented young competitive dancers, and pick up and reconfigure the elements that appear throughout the program. Brahms has always been important to Tharp. “He is both the end and the beginning” as she puts it: the end of high classical lore, and at the cliff edge of atonality. Looking back, Tharp believes she escaped the dread of influence that nearly crippled Brahms – so crushed by Beethoven’s genius that he didn’t dare write his own symphonies until his forties – in no ‘never knowing enough, at the time, to be intimidated by anyone. In the sixties, living in his loft without a shower on Franklin Street, “I had no idea what the avant-garde was,” Tharp says. “I don’t even know if I had heard of Graham when I first came to New York. I did not come with luggage. Brahms is both an inspiration and a warning to any aspiring Tharp: know what you are doing, but not enough to doubt that you should.
Jamie Fisher is a writer whose work focuses on culture and literary criticism. She is a researcher at the New York Times Magazine.