Ever since Twyla Tharp dissolved her company in 1988, she’s been forming—and dropping—groups. She must enjoy the contrast between making big pieces for the likes of American Ballet Theatre and working intensively on smaller dances with a handpicked bunch of performers. Six members of the new Twyla Tharp Dance, which played the Kennedy Center late in September, are or were affiliated with ballet companies. A seventh, Francie Huber, who was injured and did not perform in D.C., recently retired from Paul Taylor’s company.
Even though Tharp is no longer the upstart modern dancer storming the citadel, she keeps asking herself questions in an ongoing dialogue with the classical vocabulary. She bans pointe shoes from Mozart Clarinet Quintet K. 581, which makes the steps look both silkier and—because the women’s feet can be more articulate—more complex. Steps like cabrioles and pirouettes (mercifully without preparations that break the musical flow) become loops and exclamation points, and aerial virtuosity looks as offhand as a hoofer’s slow shuffle. For the occasional little accent, Tharp slips in a dodge, a shrug, a double take—moves that were integral to the style of her jazz pieces. Both these schnerkels and the show-off ballet steps can seem unnecessary, although I dig jokes that aren’t JOKES—like Benjamin Bowman and John Selya executing “nice” cabrioles while Keith Roberts gives us flexed feet and bent knees—and I melt in delight when Selya ends a pirouette balanced on one leg and then serenely puts the other foot down.
Mozart flows on and off the stage like water. In a particularly delicious duet for Selya and Ashley Tuttle, a companionable arm-in-arm stroll keeps turning into labyrinthine games. Tuttle looks unusually warm and easy in this, and delighted with her partner. (Elizabeth Parkinson is tighter, but oh, those powerhouse legs. A pinup girl with killer kicks.) An encounter between Selya and Bowman is as fluid as a competition of butterflies. There are also some ingenious variations on the notion of Tuttle walking up one man’s body and falling back into another’s arms.
Surfer at the River Styx is darker—rising from unknown depths bearing narrative gingerly in its teeth. It’s stunning, even though narrative has never been Tharp’s long suit. She delves into an idea (in this case, I was told, Euripides’ The Bacchae), but wants to convert its elements into dancing without telling an obvious story. The result is rich, yet sometimes disturbingly mysterious. We wonder, for instance, who the extraordinary Selya is (the surfer? Dionysus? Both?) and what it means when he crawls between the legs of two black-clad celebrants, or wrenches himself through an extravagant solo as if possessed by divine frenzy. The magnificent Roberts—is he Selya’s adversary or his alter ego? Traveling in slow, fateful, muscular poses, Parkinson and Bowman, Tuttle and Alexander Brady are as two-dimensional as a bas-relief—but at one point, Bowman and Brady, shocked by Selya, mince goofily like drunken maidens. And it is Parkinson who, in the end, is lifted from dimness and wheeled into a shaft of light.
The fine lighting is by Scott Zielinski. Donald Knaack’s startling score combines taped elements with percussion that Knaack creates in the pit on a battery of objects—pails, pots and pans, kitchen utensils, hubcaps, bowls of keys, and more. The sounds can be terrifying or as gentle as a gamelan in lyrical mode. David Kahne composed the music for the coda, in which everyone returns in silver-and-white clothes (by Santo Loquasto). Seeing Surfer is like stumbling into a superb prehistoric painted cave. You sense that the scenes on the walls illustrate a myth, but can’t fathom the twists of its journey.
In “An Evening of Brahms” with Janie Brendel and Friends, a flight of live chamber music, piano solos, and song soars to St. Mark’s roof, ushering in golden October. There’s no faulting Zvi Gotheiner’s skill or musicality in the supple flow of his Andante, ma moderato for Brendel, Gerald Casel, and Suzanne Gardner, but I’m powerfully struck by Ze’eva Cohen’s more surprising groupings and robust yet modulated attack in Two Songs, beautifully rendered by soprano Ivy Frenkel, pianist John Gavalchin, and dancers Casel, Gardner, and Roxane D’Orleans Juste.
Brendel herself performs in all but Cohen’s work. She is an expert dancer, and her aliveness onstage is a contrast to the noncommittal faces of Gardner and Casel. She’s deeply moving as the resigned “sister” in Doug Varone’s disturbing Care, opposite Varone (filling in for Peggy Baker, injured at the last minute). In silence, she deals with Varone—a damaged, grown-up infant needing her love, constricting her life (a phenomenal performance by Varone). Brendel gives her all to Stefa Zawerucha’s White Ginger and Baker’s Her Heart, and certainly brings them off. But both these dances must have been built on the bodies of their choreographers. Brendel’s not really earthy enough for the flirtatious gypsy stuff in Zawerucha’s piece or quite powerful enough in Baker’s. She’s not a girl, for all her youthful slimness and resilience. Will someone out there please tailor mature dancing roles to her spiky fragility, her thoughtful intensity?