Flying Blind Into Brooklyn

Twyla Tharp Reinvents Herself One More Time

To Tharp, operating in the red would be a sand-under-the-skin acknowledgment that the public doesn't care much about dance. Her goal is for this company to "pay its own way and be independent by its own labors." IMG Artists is booking the group. There are dates in Los Angeles and at Jacob's Pillow this summer, a tour in November, and solid bookings for the first three months of 2002. At that point, she hopes to double the size of the group. In three years, she's even thinking it could "fold into something called something like the Brooklyn Ballet Company"—an organization that, like the Joffrey Ballet under its late founder, would remount 20th-century classics and give gifted young choreographers with track records a place to work. She's also envisioning a full-fledged school down the line. Turning 60 this year, she inevitably has an altered perspective on how to structure time wisely and prepare for what she calls the "then what."

A week or so later, rehearsing at Hunter College, she's showing slight signs of strain. Getting all this off the ground means time away from the work that's her meat and drink. Leaning forward, intent on Roberts, Parkinson, John Selya, and Benjamin Bowman, how could she not be delighted with what she, and they, have wrought? Dancer Alexander Brady (who's wearing a T-shirt suggesting we take the A train to Brooklyn) starts the tape of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet K. 581, and suddenly the big studio at Hunter seems a brighter place. When Mozart wrote the concerto, Tharp explains, "his father had just died, he was totally broke, his babies were dying. I mean, it was a very bleak time. He sat down and he wrote this piece of music and it's like, 'All right, let's just keep it together here.' "

Ahead of the curve: Tharp redivivus
photo: Robert Whitman
Ahead of the curve: Tharp redivivus

Her choreography matches the music's high spirits and courtly games, but also its depths. In works like Deuce Coupe, Push Comes to Shove (1976), Mud (1977), and In the Upper Room (1986), Tharp created dialogues between classical steps and the twisty, dug-in style she had developed in pieces set to jazz, like the 1975 Sue's Leg. In the spooling complexities of the Mozart ballet, with virtuosity shorn of its watch-this air and dancers as fluent and easy as if eight pirouettes were a wind to lean into, she's finally merged the two styles in a happy marriage.

Tuttle isn't here today (she's represented by the men staring admiringly into space and twiddling their hands in the air overhead), Parkinson has got the bug that's going around, and Bowman keeps pressing his knee gingerly, but they attack the Mozart full out—twice—and move on to the wilder and mysteriously dramatic Surfer at the River Styx, influenced by Tharp's readings in Dionysian ritual. Watching Selya aim karate kicks at Roberts, whip into a tornado of spins, and come out feinting, I can hardly believe they haven't rehearsed the pieces for three and a half months. To Tharp, dancers are heroes, and dancers as superb as these can practically reform the world just by letting people watch them do what they do.

The success of this new Brooklyn company will depend on goodwill, interest, and her steadfastness. She's up for it. Balanchine is one of her heroes, and she knows well what he said of himself after accepting a position with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo back in 1944, after years of jobbing in Broadway musicals and movies: "I'm like a potato. A potato is pretty tough. It can grow anywhere, but even a potato has soil in which it grows best."

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