I used to wish someone would give Twyla Tharp a good-sized company and a theater and a lot of money, so she could whip up marvelous dances year in and year out. Tharp hoped that, too—maybe still does. But she wants it all—concert dance, Broadway, movies, television—artistic and financial success. Even as she ensconced her most recent small company in her Broadway gem Movin’ Out!, she was forming another group to tour the country. The touring bill, which I caught last week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, features seven dancers (only six of whom were on view) in three works: Westerly Round (2001), the new Even the King, and Surfer at the River Styx (2000).
The dancers, as one might expect, are terrific. Emily Coates lights up Westerly Round with her warm, mischievous, utterly unaffected presence. Her red curls bouncing, she’s the one the guys in this tightly knit little community follow through fiddler Mark O’Connor’s hint-of-Copland music. Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Jason McDole, and Dario Vaccaro have no time for rivalry: Tharp’s spunky Americana is as intricate as Grandma’s patchwork quilt.
After watching Neshyba-Hodges—a small, sturdy dynamo—displaying lofty leaps and buzzing spins in Westerly with somewhat self-conscious charm (all three men make “ooh, isn’t this fun” mouths), I was startled and impressed by his performance in Surfer at the River Styx, Tharp’s dark, thrilling, very oblique torpedo ride through Euripides’ The Bacchae, especially given that John Selya, on whom the part was made, is a hard act to follow. Here virtuosity is harnessed to wildness and desperation; the man seems to be sliding on rough tides, flying to pieces. Matthew Dibble also dances powerfully in the Keith Roberts role.
Dibble plays the central character in Even the King. This is a curious little ballet (the women are on pointe; the men plant themselves to prepare for pirouettes). The subject has links with 19th-century plots. Here Dibble, as the solitary, yearning hero, seems to be remembering a beautiful woman (Lynda Sing), a ballroom of waltzing couples, and a rival (Vaccaro) who competes with him and lures the woman away. The whole scene vanishes, and Dibble is left alone. Even the King originally included two additional men and two women, but, because of a family emergency, Lara Emilia Tinari had to leave the tour temporarily, and Tharp revised the ballet. In New Jersey, the royal party was underpopulated, yet the polite, my-turn-now intricacies of behavior with which Neshyba-Hodges and McDole partnered Coates suited the music: Arnold Schoenberg’s 1925 arrangement of Johann Strauss’s swoony “Emperor Waltz.” Slightly deranged passion all around.
Oh, and Tharp has been writing a book too.
Sitting at the Kitchen, waiting for David Dorfman’s new See Level to begin (it’s there through March 8), I get dizzy staring at the soft-focus rippling water projected on a screen mounted in front of a clear plastic sheet. Then I notice that behind this in the dimness, people are lying on the floor, some with arms held up and tilting to one side. They look like beached crabs or sea grass. They begin to walk as the drowsy, almost imperceptible hum of Chris Peck’s electronic score (performed live) begins to build. When does the piece “start?” Maybe when the soothing, group-therapy voice says, “I’d like you to imagine that the edge of your body is the coastline of a nation.” Can we also imagine that coastline joining with those of other nations, bays and peninsulas nestling together? Or would hostilities emerge and the entities repulse one another?
That’s what this uncannily beautiful work seems to be about: our bodies as sovereign nations attempting or refusing to integrate. And how daringly Abby Crain, Paul Matteson, Jennifer Nugent, and Joseph Poulson do this. Leaping and plunging, twisting and rolling, sometimes in unison, they catapult fluidly yet wildly as free agents, but when they meet, skin presses into skin, bodies are canted into the air, joints bend to accommodate curious linkages. People are upside down as often as they’re right side up in this quest for, or denial of, intimate union. Sometimes they try to copy one another’s dancing, and when Dorfman appears he seems a wary outsider, imperfectly echoing something he sees and then retreating.
Video and designs by Samuael Topiary and lighting by Blu combine magically to drown the dancers in, say, patterned water that covers the back wall and white floor, or to open windows of light behind them, or turn their world momentarily sunlit. Peck’s sound score is sometimes gentle, but more often overwhelming, catastrophic. Just as you think the performers are going to melt in the heat of it all, witty duets emerge. Nugent engages Matteson with the request, “I want you to imagine me.” Matteson obliges. She disapproves. As she exhorts, he gets increasingly turned on by being her. Then she tries to be him, which works pretty well until she embraces Poulson, at which point Matteson insists, “That isn’t me!” in a panic of sexual insecurity. This is all wonderfully wise and funny. Crain and Poulson later have a provocative dialogue of their own.
In the middle of the piece, Dorfman has a solitary, demented outburst, during which, shockingly, he reveals a black tongue. But at the end, after the orgies of dancing have finally quieted down, and the backdrop has shown for a few second not land masses and maps and seas but apartment buildings, he unobtrusively lines up beside the others. Would that nations tried so skillfully and doggedly to unite!
I’ve always thought of Peggy Baker as an Amazon. Tall, lean, and long-legged, she has the strong back and wide shoulders of one used to drawing a bow. But this marvelous Canadian soloist is also a subtle performer, capable of investing whatever she performs with nuance. She opened her recent Danspace program at St. Mark’s Church with a piece Tere O’Connor made for her in 1991, just after she left Lar Lubovitch’s company to return to her native Canada. Twelve years later, at 50, Baker performs it with an artistry that has only increased over the years.
O’Connor plays on her abilities as a chameleon. Dancing in silence, wearing a red party dress, she keeps shifting shapes. Now she’s bent over, a wading bird charting the space with her long legs and beautifully arched feet. Now she’s backing up, her hands making dithery little ladylike gestures. Like an East Indian soloist, she holds many selves. We see her giddy, demonic, perturbed, wound up, slyly flirtatious, wary, and so on—all at a second’s notice. This goes on for so long that we begin to wonder about her. Then a din of voices grows louder, a door opens behind her on a lighted space, and, forlornly, she exits. Has she been envisioning herself at the party, or all the dreadful people she would meet there?
Ottawa-based choreographer Tedd Robinson also draws on Baker’s acting abilities, but somehow the attitudes he asks her to adopt are swathed in a kind of attitudinizing. Being self-consciously cute and whimsical does not become her. The Transparent Recital quizzes the effect of music on dancing, and, maybe, vice versa. Masterful cellist Shauna Rolston segues from snippets of Bach to more contemporary music (mostly by John Oswald), moving to various of the chairs that are set about the church. In her garnet velvet pantsuit with a strappy top (costumes by Caroline O’Brien), she looks more dressed for dancing than Baker does in a long-sleeved matching velvet tube dress with something resembling an obi gone poufy around her waist. Clearly, Robinson is minimally interested in her legs.
Between walking around with a little suitcase, and responding to—or sometimes perhaps cueing—the music’s moods, Baker seems to be playing affected little games with Rolston. The ending is sweet—emphasizing that Rolston was a child prodigy and Baker loved music from an early age. They both sit on child-sized chairs, and while Rolston plays a pint-sized cello, Baker opens the “suitcase” (of course!), cranks it up, and drops a needle at the end of a 78 rpm record. Above the scratching, we hear the cello sing Bach’s music.
Set between these two pieces was one that gives Baker a chance to be a woman whose every move is connected to the thought or act that came before it. Doug Varone’s remarkable Home, which Baker performed here with former Varone dancer Larry Hahn, reveals, through the most economical everyday moves on or around a pair of chairs, a despairing relationship between two people who grate on each other in small ways, yet are bound together by some kind of need. Dick Connette’s music, played live by an string quartet, endlessly circles its resigned, bittersweet melodies, as if to say “This is the way it is” over and over and over.
Hahn and Baker’s superb performances give the duet a blue-collar edge I haven’t seen in previous casts. Although at one point she obliquely knocks him from his chair, he’s the one in charge, restraining his aggression, inarticulate in his tenderness. She’s drab, repressed, almost numb with misery. The push-and-pull of their daily lives is expressed in myriad mute, heart-breaking maladjustments. When they kiss, one of them places a hand between their two mouths.