Tharp the Bold


Nineteenth-century music critics vied with one another to attribute elaborate scenarios to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Wagner’s response was more interesting. He thought the work expressed “the dance in its highest condition, the happiest realization of the movements of the body in ideal form.” Twyla Tharp, whose heroes have always been dancers, dares to set a ballet to this monumental piece of music. Her own scenario suggests a struggle in which unity and harmony emerge without quashing individuality or disavowing the beauties of difficulty.

She begins by introducing us to a community: 12 New York City Ballet dancers grouped behind a scrim as if enjoying pre-rehearsal confidences. Their Isaac Mizrahi clothes, dark filmy garments layered over color, look like practice gear romanticized and made sexy. As the scrim lifts, and Jennifer Tipton floods the stage with high-noon light, Tom Gold explodes into the first of the ingenious little solos Tharp bestows on all members of her ensemble. Tearing into the dancing, they look joyous, liberated, their Balanchinian heritage honored but challenged. As Tharp said in a lecture demonstration, “You don’t come to the New York City Ballet to make a ballet, you come to address Balanchine.” It’s exhilarating to see her The Beethoven Seventh on the same program as the master’s beautiful Mozart ballet Divertimento No. 15, in which he too honors the individual in six sparkling, fiendishly intricate solo variations.

During Beethoven’s immense first movement, Tharp’s stage picture is often dense. When a solo emerges, the dancer’s partner walks around watching, giving space, but ready to join. Meanwhile, trios and duets boil around, occasionally fusing. E.T.A. Hoffmann, rhapsodizing on another Beethoven work, heard “figures . . . floating off into a point of light, now splitting apart, flashing and sparkling, evading and pursuing one another in various combinations.” Tharp makes this visible. The rulers of this lively community, Peter Boal and Jenifer Ringer, have democratic manners, often threading their way through the happy crowd. Tharp assigns Boal a profusion of turns, but also strategies for displaying a wit and lyricism to match Ringer’s warmth and sweet seductiveness.

The allegretto, with its heavy walking rhythms, Tharp treats as an adagio full of dark thoughts. When Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hübbe are together, he follows her, copies her steps, and—although courtly—looks as if he can barely refrain from devouring her. They twine without breaking the music’s flow—their passion almost dreamed. Whenever she leaves the stage, he staggers as if hit, or grovels on the floor, but recovers magically the moment she reappears.

By the boisterous Allegro con Brio, the ensemble has learned the pleasures of unison. In threes, dancers intermittently pass across the back, like the front-runner for a synchronized chorus line. Women marshal themselves to back up Damian Woetzel, men build a pattern behind Miranda Weese. Woetzel delivers his elegant dancing with superb nonchalance, the sort of man who somersaults offstage and leaves his partner to her own cheeky needlepoint cleverness.

Tharp takes risks with this beloved musical behemoth. Woetzel, for example, begins the third movement in silence, and Beethoven catches up with him. Often, powerful musical statements thunder around a couple alone onstage, as if Tharp believed that two marvelous dancers—as stand-ins for brave, generous-souled humans—could indeed contain and express all that glory. Yet in the last breathtaking moment of the finale, she reminds us that Beethoven was a Classical composer, despite his Romantic darkness, and that the NYCB is a classical company. The ensemble men behind the six principals swoop their partners to the floor, and as they raise them on the final triumphant chord, the entire cast reveals a tableau as Balanchinian and symmetrical as a snowflake.

I’ve caught some exceptionally fine performances at NYCB, in addition to those Tharp kindled. On an all-Jerome Robbins program, Arch Higgins and Benjamin Millepied made terrific debuts in the 1944 Fancy Free. With Gold, a veteran of the first sailor’s brashly athletic shenanigans, they form an endearing trio. All three have a wonderful grasp of Robbins’s take on American vernacular steps and manners and the tension he builds between camaraderie and rivalry. Ringer and Deanna McBrearty are delicious as the flirty, sweet-natured women they pursue.

The three night-blooming relationships in Robbins’s 1970 chamber ballet In the Night require a sensitivity to the nuances of both Chopin’s piano music and the subtleties of interlacings with a partner. Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard capture the image of passion restrained and suddenly unloosed (Kowroski upside down in Askegard’s arms, shivering her feet in the air). Ringer is wonderfully, unexpectedly tempestuous and unreasonable with James Fayette in the duet that throws away all restraint and ends with one of Robbins’s heart-catching moments. The woman kneels at her lover’s feet, he lifts her high above him, and regards her for a moment, then drops her into an embrace and carries her away. In a flu-induced cast change, Rachel Rutherford performed the first duet with serene amplitude—a slender woman who dances voluptuously—fascinating in contrast with Higgins’s ardency. One night, in the second variation of Divertimento No. 15, Pascale van Kipnis took such risks and shaped her dancing so boldly that the solo became for us all the adventure it was for Balanchine.

** This kind of daring—expanding classical ideals of balance and proportion while affirming them—was one of Balanchine’s missions. So was never stinting. “What are you saving yourself for?” he’d challenge a dancer in class. “Do! Now is the time! Relax is for the grave, dear.” We hear his voice constantly in a splendid new book. Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique is more than a lucid illustrated explication of exercises. Through anecdotes, advice, and images remembered from Schorer’s years as a company dancer and teacher, it reveals how Balanchine trained dancers to move bigger and faster than one would think possible. Here was a man who was, in a sense, breeding orchids—extreme, unnatural, ravishing blooms—yet he used down-to-earth imagery. The dancers were to perform rond de jambe par terre as if stirring soup; that way they’d remember that the leg should trace a full circle on the floor. Reading Balanchine’s ideas on the simplest barrework—and how music affects the performance of it—you understand the gestation of his company’s greatness and the vision that made it an instrument not only for his own choreography, but for artists such as Robbins and Tharp.

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