Twyla Tharp Dance’s evening at the Joyce draws elements from a traditional bridal ensemble: something old (two Tharp masterworks from the Seventies), something new (the premiere of Dylan Love Songs, and an odd addition called Entr’acte), something borrowed (a Robert Mankoff cartoon caption from the New Yorker), and something blue (a dress by costumer Santo Loquasto worn by dancer Kellie Drobnick, the youngest member of the company).
But that protracted analogy is as close as this program gets to June-spoon-honeymoon sentimental dancing. Tharp is a choreographic master, a scientist of movement raised in her family’s drive-in movie theater who spent years with an all-female troupe, experimenting with rhythm, space, torque, silence, stillness. Then she burst forth in the early Seventies with dances incorporating everything she’d ever learned about jazz, ballet, syncopation, acting. Her 1972 Raggedy Dances combines a series of rags — piano pieces by Scott Joplin and others, dating mostly from the early twentieth century — with the Mozart variations on a theme we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” all brilliantly played live by Joseph Mohan. Its five loose-limbed dancers inhabit the edges of the stage before they colonize the center, flinging their arms, posing and preening. There’s a “rag doll” aspect to the choreography; perhaps this is what your toys do while you’re asleep.
All Tharp’s brilliant jazz dances from the next decade are here in embryo, ballet-trained bodies set free to explore jitterbug, formal organization masquerading as improvisation. The Raggedy Dances is followed on the program by The Fugue, her 1970 exploration of rhythm and counterpoint, here in a mixed-gender version (it was originally performed by three women). Dressed all in black, with brown belts and heeled brown shoes, the dancers (Kara Chan, Reed Tankersley, and Kaitlyn Gilliland) launch themselves into the rapid-fire counterpoint of this thirteen-minute work. Body percussion, swiveling hips, and hammering feet provide the score; the floor is mic’d, and the aspect of this austere work is fierce, almost pugilistic, not ingratiating. Tharp is trying to teach us something, though she herself is learning to entertain, which she does more successfully in The Raggedy Dances.
The unexpected Entr’acte, a sort of lecture-demo set to a musical collage, deploys Tharp and the company in a vaudeville of dance doodles. Maybe she ran out of steam, or out of time; maybe these little sneaker-shod excursions are outtakes from a new piece to follow. In any case, it’s great to have her aboard and talking — one of the things she does best.
Dylan Love Songs draws on a playlist curiously void of some of the more likely Bob Dylan hits that shaped the courtship habits of a generation. (The Nobel laureate salutes photographer Fred W. McDarrah in a 1965 shot on the cover of last week’s Voice.) Tharp’s new dance is a dark one, costumed by Loquasto in monotone gray, black, and white, haunted by the thick figure of John Selya in a dark hat and overcoat and sometimes a satiny hooded cape and a cane. Could he be representing Dylan himself, or Father Time? The other performers wear soft ballet slippers for this one, and rarely touch one another.
Some of its sections have a punk, contrarian edge; Matthew Dibble, reserved and sort of British (which he is) in other portions of the evening, here exudes an unexpected toughness, as does Tankersley to the lyrics of songs like “Shelter From the Storm” and the mouth-organ cadences of “Simple Twist of Fate.” The choreography wrangles with Dylan’s surrealistic poetry; it’s hard to give both your full attention. How do you dance to a line like “I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can”? These are post-apocalyptic love songs, perfect for our current anxious moment. A section to Dylan’s 2000 “Things Have Changed” wraps it up: “People are crazy and times are strange.”
As is the case with several of her cohort (Tharp is 76), it may be that the dance legend’s best work is behind her, but the fact that she’s still onstage bossing people around in her helmet of silver hair and her baggy sweatshirt, stealing a great line from the caption of a cartoon (“Say what you mean, Harris. The language of dance has always eluded me”), still experimenting with form and technique and the deployment of bodies in space, bodes well for the future. She’s one of the few dance artists of her generation who’s successfully brought full-scale productions to Broadway (a lively musical to Billy Joel songs, a more downbeat one to other Dylan pieces, and the Frank Sinatra duets that made her famous). We’re lucky to have this small-scale, close-up version of her gifts available in Chelsea for a longish run.