How They Boogalooed It!

Student dancers with professional chops

Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe
photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe

I can still remember the 1973 New York premiere of Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe by the Joffrey Ballet and how people sailed out of theater, light of foot and buoyant of heart. The piece, presciently commissioned by Robert Joffrey, was a breakthrough in many ways. One of the most adventurous and scrappy young postmodernists had breached the longstanding division between ballet and modern dance and made a work that celebrated and united both styles, as if to say, “It’s all dancing. What’s your problem?” And such dancing! Some members of Joffrey’s company had been puzzled and recalcitrant about appearing in this work to tunes by the Beach Boys and being joined onstage by Tharp’s dancers. But those who persisted must have been amply rewarded. The audience cheered—thrilled by such unusual sights as the Joffrey’s Gary Chryst partnering Tharp herself, or Beatriz Rodriguez rippling her spine along with Tharp’s women.

Tharp went on to make a number of works for ballet companies and several pieces (In the Upper Room, for instance), in which ballet and her funky, jazz-influenced style conversed and mated. But you could already see in Deuce Coupe how her emphasis on fluidity and little traveling steps, rather than on held poses, gave the ballet vocabulary a different look. And you could note that a Tharp dancer like Sara Rudner could match any ballerina in elegance.

The version of Deuce Coupe that William Whitener set for the Juilliard students’ spring concert couldn't be expected to have quite that impact. For one thing, it’s a version Tharp revised for Joffrey dancers alone, in order to make it practical for touring. The graffiti artists who created the backdrop onstage during the piece were replaced by Santo Loquasto’s bright, ersatz-graffiti drop. Whitener, who performed in the original cast when he was a member of the Joffrey, surely found that the excellently trained young Juilliard dancers probably make no big deal about whether a step is “ballet” or something else. Inevitably, this Deuce Coupe looks more homogeneous that it did back in 1973, but it’s still a marvel in terms of its inventiveness and its musicality. When the spraddle-legged monkeyshines of “Alley Oop” and the druggy noodling around of “Papa ooh Mau Mau,” and all the other hot-and-sour sections wind down to the final procession, and bright threads of all that came before are woven into the sweet exaltation of “Cuddle Up,” you could die of pleasure.

I imagine that, by the last performance, the dancers—the women wearing Scott Barrie's orange dresses, the men in red pants and flowered shirt—had acquired a little more juicy ease, and sensed more of Tharp’s wit, but they’re a splendid bunch. Mary Ellen Boudreau, as the figure who spools through the piece, anchoring it with a litany of ballet steps from a to z, performs with beautiful absorption and smooth skill. Riley Watts aces the speeded-up version of “Alley Oop.” Emily Proctor, Caroline Fermin, Allison Ulrich, Nathan Madden, and Annie Shreffler were among the standouts in the first cast.

Deuce Coupe was bookended by Susan Marshall’s new Name By Name and Jirí Kylián’s 1980 Soldiers’ Mass, the former for 18 women, the latter for 12 men. Marshall created a fascinating piece. Set to David Lang’s Increase, “This was written by hand” (solo pianist: Conor L. Hanick), it alludes in mysterious ways to the act of performance in its many meanings, of which ordeal is certainly one and discipline another. Name By Name begins with the curtain still down and a woman (Laura Careless) lying with the lower half of her body still trapped behind it. For a long time, she’s alone—rolling over, slowly reaching curved arms up, gazing at us, collapsing prone again. Others slide out to join her and are dragged back.

When the curtain eventually rises, the women form a shoulder-to-shoulder line, sometimes kneeling, sometimes standing. Pressed close together, they soberly execute poses that might have been drawn from the adagio section of a ballet class. Every now and then a woman on the end pushes against the whole row. Instead of toppling, her companions simply evolve into a new position. Still other dancers crawl in from under the back curtain, and while people pass breezily across the stage, sometimes stepping and turning in waltz time, Logan Kruger stands in a spotlight, repeating a phrase. Over and over, she crosses her arms in front of her face and slides them around her body, suddenly spins into a fall, then gropes back to an upright position. Marshall gradually brings other women into Kruger’s orbit to help her and, one by one, to replace her. At the end, in a sudden silence, all the women assemble and advance toward us as if planning to walk off the stage and out into the world beyond the school.

Students in Juilliard’s Dance Division have the luxury of dancing to music provided by those in the Music Division. At these performances of Soldiers’ Mass, one of the school’s several ensembles, AXIOM, conducted by George Stelluto, tackles Bohuslav Martinu’s tremendous Military Mass for orchestra, male chorus, and baritone soloist (the excellent David Williams). Kylián’s choreography is relentless in its driving, muscular energy and, eventually, it moves you because of that. The twelve men who comprise its cast are breathing hard and dripping with sweat by the end of what amounts to a long virtuosic struggle with themselves, and the audience accords them the cheers they deserve (special kudos to the fine opening-night soloists, Antonio Brown, Shamel Pitts, Kevin Shannon, and Joseph Watson).

They dance before a handsome backdrop by Kylián that looks like a changing sky, under lighting originally created by Kees Tjebbes. Initially, the men face that vision as they gradually begin marching in place. They don’t enact a battle, although at one point they pair off and lift each other; they seem rather to be going through an arduous drill on which their lives depend. The most arresting aspect of Kylián’s choreography is the way he forms, divides, breaks, and reforms the lines and squads in which the men attack, leap, spin, and fall. The words of the Mass (in Czech) pray for strength, pray for life, pray for mercy. The dance presents those prayers as a formal simulation of war, echoing its patterns but not its carnage.

 
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