An egg-yolk moon rises over Battery Park for the opening night of Evening Stars’ eighth season presenting free dance events in the River to River Festival. The Hudson glistens, and along the path to the temporary stage, the scent of lavender rises. When the Kansas City Ballet ends its evening with “The Golden Section” from Twyla Tharp’s The Catherine Wheel, the hordes camped out on the lawn might well believe that the heavens are displaying a particularly dazzling Perseid shower.
William Whitener, KCB’s artistic director, danced in the 1981 premiere of The Catherine Wheel, as did Shelley Washington, who assisted him in putting together The Catherine Wheel Suite (two additional sections precede the final glittering eruption). The 78-minute original rode a mixed-up narrative about a dysfunctional family, its struggles dissected by a sort of Greek chorus with additional battles to fight. When the same stomping, bickering dancers appeared, re-costumed in gold by Santo Loquasto, and began vaulting through David Byrne’s pulsing score, the repeated words seemed an understatement: “What a day that was!” Purged of everyday pettiness, the performers had become heroes, angels.
A suite can’t convey that message with the same power, but the KCB dancers are splendid, and “The Golden Section” turns them into conquerors. There’s no time for attitude or wavering, hardly any for breathing. They hurtle into Tharp’s rich, complex choreography, diving over and under one another, spinning, exploding into the air, being sucked into groups and expelled again—particles in a cosmic dance yet irrevocably human.
“Dinosaur” and “Cloud Chamber” set up “The Golden Section” fairly effectively. In the first, the dancers wear black with red wristlets and ankle warmers and enter strutting and pecking. Tough and confrontational, they hunker down and bounce, punch air, shake their hips and shoulders. Byrne’s light percussion of kitchen utensils and what-all aids a sexy, intermittently cranky duet, “Cloud Chamber.” Severed from the characters of the original Catherine Wheel, it’s still brilliant, and Stefani Schrimpf and Logan Pachciarz do it proud.
Pachciarz is also terrific in Whitener’s recent Jaywalk, performing a long blues dialogue with himself and Miles Davis’s music. Whitener’s take on ’50s and ’60s jazz and the Beat generation slides from irony to admiration and from the personal to the stereotypical. We hear Carl Sandburg evaluating Beat poetry and Del Close and John Brent’s hilarious “interview” from the 1959 LP How to Speak Hip. In the opening “Swinghouse” (Gerry Mulligan), 23 dancers parade hepcat manners and settle down to watch show-off solos and duos. “After the Rain” (John Coltrane) features three couples in balletic unison or canon pas de deux—planted in space and dreamily static. Deanna Hodges performs a rhythmically lively—if out of context—tap number in silence and ends the piece spinning alone, after a musical fast-forward to “Red Sun,” a cut from sitarist-composer Anoushka Shankar’s 2005 Rise. Riding the driving Indian percussion, Whitener’s vivid array of steps finally unleashes the dancers to slice through space and assail the air.
Because of a last-minute injury, The Still Point (1981), by the company’s artistic director emeritus Todd Bolender, was replaced by Jacques d’Amboise’s Meditation (1956) and the late David Berkey’s 1990 Sentinel. Berkey’s choreography—flawed by a rather disturbing lack of rapport with the accompanying Brahms concerto—moves four excellent male dancers (Christopher Barksdale, Matthew Donnell, Paris Wilcox, and Lateef Williams) through handsome patterns shaped by camaraderie and spiritual searching. D’Amboise’s Meditation is one of those highly romantic duets in which a man and woman (Kimberly Cowan and Juan Pablo Trujillo) rush about searching for each other and possible lurking dangers before embarking on lovely, tender entwinings that show off his ardent strength and her beautiful arabesques.
It’s Tharp’s “Golden Section,” however, that pulls spectators to their feet and reminds us that exemplary courage, honesty, and daring still exist.