Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC
November 11, 2015

Carmel Morgan

Twyla Tharp Dance in Prelude and Fugues Photo Sharen Bradford

Twyla Tharp Dance in Prelude and Fugues
Photo Sharen Bradford

Twyla Tharp’s 50th Anniversary Tour, rather than featuring old favorites, introduces new pieces. For Tharp fans, that choice might seem disappointing, but the program sings with familiarity.

Tharp’s choreography has definite hallmarks. She has a quirky style that embraces both humor and depth. For the tour, she has gathered an eclectic assortment of veteran performers and young artists. In a way, her choreography is like a language. Some of the dancers with whom she has frequently collaborated are completely fluent. Former Martha Graham Dance Company member Rika Okamoto, in particular, speaks Tharp so well she courts perfection. Indeed, the older dancers are still at the top of their game. The entire company of 13 dancers gave all they had to the performance, and the audience in return gushed with appreciation.

The written program for the anniversary tour divides the new works into four parts: First Fanfare, Preludes and Fugues, Second Fanfare, and Yowzie. In addition to some familiar dancers and even some familiar music and titles (she choreographed previously to music by Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, both used in Yowzie, and made a dance in 1970 called The Fugue), Tharp again makes use of longtime collaborators Santo Loquasto (costumes) and James F. Ingalls (lighting), both among the best in their respective fields. Their contributions to the tour are immense.

Although the four pieces are distinct in the program, the fanfares almost disappear into the larger and longer works that follow. According to Tharp, all of the works together are meant to form a coherent whole. Coherent or not, the dancing and choreography are uplifting in the extreme. Tharp and her dancers deliver more than smiles, however. They deliver impressive technical mastery coupled with exuberant bursts of unbridled optimism. For opening night in Washington, DC, on Veteran’s Day, the buoyant hope exemplified by the program significantly brightened an otherwise somber day of remembrance.

In a post-performance question and answer session. Tharp explained that she had ideas for choreographing to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (known by its initials “WTC”), the music that accompanies Preludes and Fugues, immediately after the World Trade Center (also abbreviated as “WTC”) tragedy in New York, when she was in the midst of rehearsals for Movin’ Out, the musical she conceived and that features the music of Billy Joel. As the producers of the musical apparently didn’t understand why Tharp was working on anything having to do with Bach, she was forced to set aside the Well-Tempered Clavier for a while.

Yowzie Photo Sharen Bradford

Photo Sharen Bradford

In Preludes and Fugues, Tharp presents complex choreography that takes contemporary ballet and stretches it like a child making intricate string figures. She bestows a sophisticated match to Bach’s well regarded music. The dancers are bouncy and bright-faced. Many look as if they’re keeping a fun secret, and the pleasant but unrelenting movement unfolds in layers of surprise, too. Groups of dancers sweep on and off the stage in rapid succession. A dancer shakes as if trying to fling bugs off her body, another turns to stare at an invisible insect buzzing through the air. There are jerks, shrugs, and grimaces that may seem random, but no gesture is wasted. While exaggerated and cartoonish, the dancing is also surepemely skilled, and the overall effect is both breezy and serious. When the dancers all gather at the close of Preludes and Fugues, holding hands, and the pace slows, in this room to breathe you feel part of Tharp’s beautiful community.

Second Fanfare (both fanfares are to music by John Zorn) gives a sneak peek at the frolic to come in Yowzie by showing dancers engulfed in shadow parading in front of and behind a scrim lit with vivid red light. Dashing ahead like an out of control train, Yowzie beguiles with chaotic radiance. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen costumes as colorful or as crazy as Loquasto’s for the piece – a mishmash of dyed fabrics, headpieces, and objects that look they’ve been raided from a theater’s discard pile of clothing from decades ago. New Orleans, Miami, and Las Vegas all come to mind, as the dancers in their rainbow-hued garb, flirt and party and stumble and flail. Ingalls plays up the circus-like atmosphere with occasional swirling spotlights, but it’s the overall simplicity of the design in contrast to the funky moves and wild costumes that shows off Tharp’s choreography at its finest. The zany and irresistable Okamoto steals much of the limelight as a stomach scratching inebriated fool. She is the comic center, and she grounds the piece. Yowzie has a Broadway feel – the movment is big and expressive – and you almost expect someone to break out into song. Instead of an actual song, a male dancer, like a sideshow barker, takes an oportunity to excitedly jabber nonsense.

Tharp’s lifetime of choreographic craft is reverently conveyed through the dancers in the Anniversary Tour. The dancers, like her, are delightful dynamos and captains of cool. Tharp is a certainly reason to celebrate, and I’m sure all in attendance were impressed by the impact of her genius. In the question and answer session following the performance, Tharp commented that she doesn’t like the words “go and “gone” in reference to her future. While I also don’t like that, she cannot live forever, but I have no doubt her dances are among those that will live on. Part of what Tharp said she wishes to offer through her art is a counterpoint to destructive forces. She succeeds in this, giving audiences the gift of compassion and extraordinary positivity.