The seven champion dancers in Twyla Tharp’s little company have deepened their understanding of her choreographic language just since this past spring, when I saw them at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Tharpwork, like Tharp’s speech in conversations and interviews, flashes and twists in the air, nose-dives, and comes up already soaring. Vernacular asides cap elegance in expression. Virtuosity laughs at itself or becomes a killing force. And the dancers’ bodies seem about five times as articulate, changeable, and at ease in physical ordeal as those in any other troupe, whether we’re talking about the fury of Tharp’s brilliant, shadowy Surfer at the River Styx or the sunny mock-square-dance playfulness of Westerly Round.
Known by Heart Duet (not on the New Jersey program) was first seen in Manhattan as half of a 1998 work Tharp choreographed for American Ballet Theatre. This combative duet, to Donald Knaack’s wacky percussion (excerpts from his Junk Music) is like a rough-and-tumble version of a ’30s Hollywood movie: A made-for-each-other pair meet cute and spat their way to happiness. I love the fact that this pas de deux has almost no lifts; the couple is too busy teasing, sparring, and backing off for that kind of nonsense.
Tharp has revived The Fugue (1970), a kind of touchstone, exhibiting in blazingly pure form her brilliance at structure. A 20-count phrase is varied in all possible ways: speeded up and slowed down, taken apart and reassembled, turned upside down and run backward, and more. The three performers work in unison, in canon, in counterpoint. Since there’s no music but the sound of their shoes on a mic’d floor, their drop into synchrony at the end of a phrase can seem like a miracle.
As technically crisp as the performances by Whitney Simler, Jason McDole, and Dario Vaccaro are, the cast—the men primarily—doesn’t have the knack of interested neutrality that seems to me a crucial part of The Fugue. With these three, a sharp move that metamorphoses into a slow, smooth one comes to look like languidness. A simple clap to establish a rhythm shows attitude. Concentration becomes studied grimness. I don’t want to wonder what’s up with these people, I want to see the steps.
In fact, my only quibble with these terrific performers is that in all the dances except Surfer, their faces are as busy as their feet. When the expressions are overdone or don’t seem to come naturally out of the action, they’re distracting (Vaccaro has a new reaction every few seconds). I’m grateful for Charlie Neshyba Hodges’s smile of pure pleasure in Westerly when Emily Coates tosses him an encouraging glance. Tharp wants lively, expressive performing these days, and that’s reasonable, as long as it stops short of looking fabricated.
“I am you, and you are my reflection!” That’s the last line of a printed statement by the South African dancer-choreographer Vincent Mantsoe, and in the two riveting solos he performed at Jacob’s Pillow, he either compelled or cajoled the willing spectators into his world—not just looking at us, but seeing us. Mantsoe is one of those rare performers whose mind, body, and spirit fully—magnificently—inhabit their movements. And those movements, in a style he calls “Afro-Fusion,” are rich: weighted and responsive to emotions or to perceived changes in the habitat that he (with the help of lighting designer Hans-Olof Tani) creates in the Doris Duke Studio Theater. In his 2000 Barena (Chiefs), he carries a staff and a cloak—symbols of authority—and enters walking with careful majesty, inhibiting the suppleness of his torso. But often, as he slashes with the stick or uses it as if to track game or dances hefting it or drapes the cloak over it, he watches us. Walking away, he stops and snaps his head around to pin us in a fierce gaze; we are his restless people and need to be impressed. This is a chief uncertain of his power.
As he sets the regalia aside and gets into his dancing, his thoughtfulness persists. A change of music, from tribal chants and percussion to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie I and back again, enlarges the field of reference (and impels some new straight-up jumps). The piece, however, ends with the conflict between mature calm and torturing insecurity unresolved, and he strides away from us on his knees.
In Motswa Hole (person from far away), Mantsoe, wearing ragged pants, becomes another person (or another side of himself)—uninhibited, mischievous, delirious with pleasure. His hips start rolling, and his feet rebound from the floor to the changing sounds of voices, drums, rattles, bells, and thumb pianos. His center of attention is the water hole—a large bowl. In a parched landscape, just being near it turns him on, and he teases himself with its proximity—dipping a toe in, rubbing a little on his chest. When he sprays the first crystal plume onto himself, he grins and wags a finger at us. When we laugh at his deepening love affair with the water, he laughs with us.
Enclosing the bowl in a semicircle of white cloth strips, he opens a “gate,” and invites us in. When we don’t come, he scoops up what’s left of the water from the floor, puts it back in the bowl and comes up the aisles, anointing us with the dregs and the more generous benison of his performing.
The Wednesday-afternoon Union Square performances (music, readings, and dance) put on by Summer in the Square through August 20 have a funky ease, no matter how polished the show that fans, passersby, picnickers, and wandering tots may be watching. Part of the charm of KR3TS, the hip-hop group directed by Violeta Galagarza, is that its young performers are skilled and disciplined without being the least bit slick. Galagarza speaks from the heart between numbers about positive attitude and joy in life, and tells us that we too—however young, however old—can do this dancing. Her two-year-old, Noah, gets the mic to chirp the group’s motto and acronym, “Keep rising to the top.”
A smart number, like the opening Get Ready, shows how clever and busy the hip-hop body can be, given some solid choreography. This group is less about individual, show-off B-boying (although that happens) than about enthusiastic ensemble precision from which individuals come out to shine. These dancers change your view of their bodies all the time—watch these elbows, see that leg twist, here comes a turn, there goes an arm ripple—and all this rides springy, dug-in foot rhythms that never quit. A fellow named Ali sings as well as dances. One skinny man is as wily as an eel. One very sharp boy is only eight. Two-year-old Noah has some of the moves down, almost; the big guys work around him or give him gentle shoves.
Watching salsa, mambo, popping, locking, a little male-female flirting, a lot of good-natured showing off, and vibrant dancing—it’s a healthy way to spend the cocktail hour.