Twyla Tharp Dance
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

February 20, 2024
Oceans Motion, Brel (world premiere), The Ballet Master (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

Twyla Tharp Dance returned to the Joyce Theater last week for a two-week engagement, through February 25th. After being snowed in for opening night and the following Saturday by two separate storms, I finally got to see this program on the first day of its second week.

With some quibbles, the dance stew that the indefatigable 82 year-old Tharp cooked up was worth the wait – even if only for the evening’s final piece, The Ballet Master, one of the program’s two world premieres. The opportunity to see that dance alone is well worth the price of admission, if you can find a ticket; my understanding is that the remaining performances are sold out.

I’ll address The Ballet Master first, then the other two in performance order.

If the other dances on the program are examples of Tharp’s stew, The Ballet Master is the meal’s dessert – and it’s nutty as a fruitcake.

(clockwise from top) John Selya, Cassandra Trenary,
and Daniel Ulbricht in Twyla Tharp’s “The Ballet Master”
Photo by Steven Pisano

There are no words sufficient to describe The Ballet Master. It’s far zanier than Push Comes to Shove; and about as complex in its way as In The Upper Room, though far less mesmerizing and without that masterpiece’s patina of significance. And it features brilliant execution by members of the company, including two guest artists: Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Ulbricht, Principal Dancers with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet respectively.

To the extent The Ballet Master is “about” anything (and not just “whatever you think it’s about”), it’s a well-intentioned skewering of classical ballet’s high-falutin silliness (and probably also its technical rigidity) that takes pot-shots at the ballet world’s plethora of silly stories – like Don Quixote – but does so with its tongue firmly planted in its cheekiness. Alternatively, it might also be seen as a commentary on the trials and tribulations – and silliness – of a ballet teacher’s hopeless efforts to have his students — and maybe him(or her)self as well – achieve elusive, and unattainable, perfection. In other words, Tharp’s skewering of storybook ballets with loopy librettos, and perhaps more ballet examples than that, may be seen as equivalent to Cervantes’s novel’s skewering of medieval chivalry.

(l-r) Daniel Ulbricht, Miriam Gittens, and Daisy Jacobson
in Twyla Tharp’s “The Ballet Master”
Photo by Steven Pisano

There are probably many other possible “meanings” within The Ballet Master, but the undeniable observation about it is that it’s all assembled splendidly, and it’s great fun.

Part of The Ballet Master’s charm is its wacky, but also brilliant, musical selection that demarcates the two related but relatively distinct segments of the piece: BI BA BO, by Simeon ten Holt (a Dutch minimalist composer, 1923 – 2012), and Vivaldi’s “Per la Solennita of S. Lorenzo,” RV 562 in D Major (which translates as either “for the solemnity of San Lorenzo” or “for the feast of San Lorenzo” – or both).

The first composition is a jumble of single-syllabic word-sounds with a melodic pattern that may be discernable after, maybe, ten or twenty exposures to it; the second a Baroque era lachrymal /joyous religious pre-concerto featuring instruments that were “new” to Vivaldi (like the clarinet, which was invented around 1700 and was developed from a Baroque instrument called the chalumeau; and the oboe, derived from an earlier form known by its French name: hautbois), and which may have included vocals by a women/ girls’ choir that was positioned behind a grate above the listener so the sounds seemed to be emerging from some heavenly angelic voice.

It’s tempting to think that Tharp uses the score because the music, or sounds, fit. But there’s more to Tharp than that, so there’s possibly a direct relationship to the music that I can only hypothesize about now. Suffice it to say that the music fits the choreography and vice versa. And even though they sound, and look, completely different, the two parts combine into a coherent whole.

(clockwise from bottom) Jake Tribus, Daisy Jacobson,
Miriam Gittens, and Reed Tankersley
in Twyla Tharp’s “The Ballet Master”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Like ten Holt’s piece, the first section of The Ballet Master may have a choreographic pattern to it – and having seen Tharp’s choreography on many occasions, I don’t doubt that it does – but seeing it in the course of only one exposure makes any such effort quixotic. Generalities and subjects, on the other hand, are much easier to find.

On stage, as the syllabic-sound speech begins, the curtain opens to John Selya teaching class to two students, Jake Tribus and Reed Tankersley. It appears clear that the Ballet Master has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing (or is intentionally doing it “wrong”) – or Tharp is intentionally revisiting a ballet class in a mode that makes fun of rigidly enforced ballet steps by displaying the opposite.

The “class” consists of the two students bumping into each other in various ways – nonsense movement corresponding to nonsense sounds, all under the watchful and sometimes corrective eyes of Selya’s Ballet Master, perhaps because he sees the steps being performed by his students as ballet steps (like the way he sees Dulcinea as his ideal woman). It’s all very silly. But there are lots of little things buried here that add texture to the silliness: like when Tribus hits the floor after Tankersley bumps into him, then begs for support from Selya when Tankersley apparently forgets to pick him up from the floor (or just refuses to follow the BM’s choreography); or when one female dancer, Miriam Gittens, seemingly wandering onto the stage/class, staying momentarily to put on pointe shoes that aren’t pointe shoes, then leaving; and another, Daisy Jacobson, crossing upstage/ back of the classroom with a cell phone in her hand who spends time on it while the men take class.

It’s all seemingly pointless, but somehow Tharp manages to segue the silliness of Part I more directly toward skewering overbaked Romantic ballets that are loved but ridiculously silly, like Don Quixote.

She accomplishes this in part by a visual segue. After the nonsensical first segment, and as the Vivaldi solemnly begins, Trenary, wearing a Romantic ballet tutu that looks like it had been worn far beyond its useful life – bourrees upstage from one wing to the opposite as if she were a distorted vision of perfection – a Dulcinea as Don Quixote sees her.

Then the Ballet Master begins his quest, and the real fun begins. Selya emerges from the audience left wings wearing an armored breastplate and helmet that have also seen better days (or that may have been provided to him – I don’t recall observing its initial appearance), accompanied by his sidekick, his faithful somewhat dimwitted companion Ulbricht. There’s no question that this is an intentional reference to Don Q ballet’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza suddenly emerging onto the village square from out of nowhere, interrupting the silliness with their own silliness.

Daisy Jacobson in Twyla Tharp’s “Ocean’s Motion”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Eventually Trenary returns in at least three different costumes by my count – although one (and maybe both) are worn beneath its predecessor, and as Vivaldi’s music gradually morphs from the spiritual to the festive, the segment evolves as well, with the dance’s movement variety gradually and increasingly emphasizing Tharp style (however you want to define that). The last of Trenary’s costumes, skin-tight gold spandex thigh-length pants and a purplish top – enhances Dulcinea’s transformation into a contemporary (Tharpian) ideal.

Each of the dancers here left distinct impressions (and Gittens handles climbs and falls brilliantly), but I must single out Trenary, whose depth and command have never been so clearly displayed, and who’s never looked better displaying them.

Tharp is too clever to let The Dance Master devolve into gut-busting comedy or slapstick. Rather, the piece is an in-joke of the highest order. It may not be in the same league as In the Upper Room, but it’s well-worth a detour to see if and when it returns.

(l-r) Jake Tribus, Daisy Jacobson, Miriam Gittens,
Reed Tankersley, and Skye Mattox
in Twyla Tharp’s “Ocean’s Motion”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The program’s other two pieces were not as noteworthy.

The evening opened with Tharp’s 1975 dance, Ocean’s Motion. Choreographed to six songs (plus a reprise) by Chuck Berry (“Almost Grown,” “Deep Feeling,” “School Days,” Nadine,” Too Pooped to Pop,” and “Havana Moon”), the dance is a fine representative of Tharp’s choreography around that time – and as I’ve previously observed, any choreography by Tharp is both quirky and superb by definition. Aside from Tharp’s slinky, off-balance, twisty, and demandingly energetic choreography, it’s a great vehicle for Tharp’s dancers (Jacobson, Gittens, Tankersley, Tribus, and Skye Mattox). And the choreography is designed to fit the changing pace of the music without being bound by it. Each song was given distinctive choreography.

(l-r) Miriam Gittens, Daisy Jacobson, and Skye Mattox
in Twyla Tharp’s “Ocean’s Motion”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Notably, however, it’s the song’s musical style that prompts Tharp’s choreography, not the meaning of the words that Berry is singing. It’s “see the music in the song” more than it is “see the song,” and this is a factor in the program’s middle piece, the other world premiere.

Brel is a solo vehicle for ABT Principal Herman Cornejo. Not surprisingly given its title, it’s choreographed to songs written and performed by Belgian/ French singer/ songwriter Jacques Brel.

In a recent review (of a dance presented by Complexions Contemporary Ballet at the Joyce this past November), I commented on one of the songs used in that particular piece, one written by Brel. I supplemented my observation with a memory of having seen Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, a musical review (properly embellished with emotion), in its original Greenwich Village incarnation, and with its original cast. I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to reference Brel’s songs again so soon.

It may be unfair, but that show has cemented (positively) my memory of the emotions that propel all but one of the Brel songs I’d previously heard in the review (“Quand on n’a Que L’amour,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Amsterdam,” and “Marieke”). [The only song in Brel that I don’t recall hearing in the prior show is “Les Marquises.”] In the review, the songs were sung/ acted by members of the cast. Hearing Brel himself sing these songs on the recording used here re-emphasizes what I remembered.

Herman Cornejo in Twyla Tharp’s “Brel”
Photo by Steven Pisano

And that memory underlies my lukewarm reaction to Brel – not to the choreography generally, but to the fact that I see the choreography as only vaguely referencing the words and meaning of the songs. Instead, it’s geared to showcasing Cornejo and his technique.

Given what Tharp did with Ocean’s Motion to Chuck Berry’s songs (as well as Deuce Coupe around roughly the same time period)), I suppose not really emotionally tracking the Brel songs shouldn’t be surprising. But where those songs (in Ocean’s Motion, and in Deuce Coupe), don’t really require an emphasis on the “meaning” of the songs – here Tharp’s choreography doesn’t do the song’s clear emotion and meaning justice. I expected more than an occasional nod to the song’s emotional content.

Herman Cornejo in Twyla Tharp’s “Brel”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Beyond that, Cornejo still has the ability – at least with respect to the bravura stuff on display here – to deliver crisply executed examples of ballet bravura, and should be recognized for that, even though the examples here can readily be found in most of his ABT performances. He’s the glue that holds Brel together. Certainly the Joyce audience appreciated it – at the dance’s conclusion the collective roar possibly registered on the Richter Scale.

Presumably for scheduling reasons (ABT began its annual Kennedy Center season this week), Cornejo alternated in the role with Ulbricht. I’d like to have seen what I suspect was Ulbricht’s somewhat different performance. But given scheduling and career performance trajectories, that’s probably roughly akin to Don Quixote’s reaching for the unreachable star.