Twyla Still Orchestrates That Old Black Magic


Spectators at the opening performance of Twyla Tharp’s summer season didn’t exactly spring to their feet when the final curtain fell; an older crowd, knowledgeable in the
intricacies of Tharp’s body of work, they luxuriated in their experience, screaming and clapping, from the comfort of the Joyce’s seats. But when the choreographer herself darted down the aisle and was hoisted onto the stage, we did stand, prolonging the well-earned ovation.

Celebrating fifty-plus years of radicalizing theatrical dance, Tharp brings to the concert stage a fairly unusual perspective: the female gaze. She tends to privilege her male dancers. Even when they’re outnumbered, the men seize your attention —
because they seize hers. In the program’s opening number, the 1976 Country Dances, John Selya, who’s been working with Tharp since 1989 and has developed a comforting middle-age spread, plays that shy guy in the bar who needs several drinks
before he dares approach the ladies (Amy Ruggiero, Eva Trapp, and Kaitlyn Gilliland), but approach he does, partnering sometimes all three at once, then absently turning on one leg while twiddling his thumbs. To the raucous strains of old-time fiddle music by the likes of the Hired Hands and the Skillet Lickers, the four of them, all slightly tipsy, might be gathered just outside the dance hall, in the parking lot, on a summer’s night; too far gone for the formal doings inside, they’re nevertheless having a ball, wearing Santo Loquasto’s layered,
embroidered clothes and jazz shoes.

What Tharp and her dancers give us
is dazzling specificity; we are clear
about who they are, where they are, what they’re doing, and even the era in which they’re doing it. They unselfconsciously break the fourth wall, unafraid to look us in the eye; in the intimate precincts of the Joyce, we can actually look back. Reed Tankersley, who performs the long,
difficult solo that opens the 1980 Brahms
, walks backward, windmills his arms, seems to be making the steps up rather than remembering them. Finally, in his preppy Ralph Lauren shirt and trousers, he offers them to us. Compared to this tour de force, the second half of the work, a quartet of young athletes joined by lanky Gilliland, feels almost like an afterthought.

Tharp’s new Beethoven Opus 130 (set to three of the string quartet’s six movements) reveals the choreographer in a theatrical mode: Her eight dancers, in Norma Kamali’s witty black costumes, seem to drift through the shadows of a Gothic pile. Their technique is unassailably balletic, though no pointe shoes are in evidence. Whether bare-chested or wearing Kamali’s wrap shirt, the floppy-haired Nick Coppula cuts a Byronic figure, stretched out on the floor between Gilliland’s legs or flying across the space. Matthew Dibble, a smallish guy partnering the tall and rangy Gilliland, stands still for a long time, slowly lifting his arms, revealing traces of character in this otherwise abstract work. Overwrought, florid, almost a parody, the ballet winks
at notions of plot the way a martini winks at vermouth. When, in its last moments, Dibble peels down his jersey batwing top and stands half-naked, sweating and
bewildered in Stephen Terry’s dying light, we know we are in the presence
of a hero.

Twyla Tharp and Three Dances

Joyce Theater

175 Eighth Avenue


Through July 23