Tharp, Sharp and Dull

Leigh Donlan reported from Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall:

On her 50th anniversary tour, Twyla Tharp brought a troupe of accomplished dancers, including some veterans from her previous projects, to Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall this past weekend. The company performed two premieres, the impressive Preludes and Fugues, the less impressive Yowzie, and two elusive Fanfares that came and went so quickly they seemed barely there at all.

Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp-Coppula in Twyla Tharp's PRELUDES AND FUGUES (Photo: Ruven Afanador)

Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp-Coppula in Twyla Tharp’s PRELUDES AND FUGUES (Photo: Ruven Afanador)


Preludes and Fugues was delightful. Twelve dancers moved as singular and clustered notes from the score of J.S. Bach’s “The Well tempered Clavier: Volume 1,” the women in richly colored short dresses, the men in simple pants and flowing shirts, designed by the masterful Santo Loquasto, a longtime Tharp collaborator.  A series of pas de deux, trois and quatres, the audience experience was truly listening with the eyes. The dancers moved with classical proficiency and grace – except for Rika Okamoto, who seemed uncomfortable with the strenuously classical technique in this piece, appearing too serious amongst her humorous and joyful companions (though she shines in Yowzie). The piece embodies Tharp’s signature style of juxtaposed movements – soft elegant lifts turning quickly to sharp plank poses, for example – along with her customary shadow boxing and jogging. What was most impressive was the structure of the dance. Tharp’s use of space, musical timing and comedic timing were the gifts most evident in this piece. Never was there a poorly utilized moment: Tharp is efficient. And even when the repetitive movements became predictable, the dancers’ enthusiasm did not waver.

Ron Todorowski, Amy Ruggiero and John Selya in Twyla Tharp's YOWZIE (Photo: Ruven Afanador)

Ron Todorowski, Amy Ruggiero and John Selya in Twyla Tharp’s YOWZIE (Photo: Ruven Afanador)

Until Yowzie, or “the world as it is,” according to Tharp. There seemed to be a drop in morale among the performers. The movement started to feel forced and foreign on the dancers’ bodies and the joie de vivre of simply dancing quickly dimmed. Portraying village idiots for thirty minutes probably is exhausting, even if the music was very enjoyable. Tharp chose some of the finest jazz recordings by Henry Butler, “Fats” Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and Wesley Wilson. But something felt amiss in this piece, and with the dancers’ talents reduced to schtick, it became tedious. Okamoto thankfully provided some true comic relief with her portrayal of a drunken jilted lover turn warrior queen. But the other dancers seemed weary of playing fools, and when the dancers tire, so does the audience.

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in YOWZIE (Photo: Ruven Afanador)

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in YOWZIE (Photo: Ruven Afanador)

In a post-show conversation with my Sunday matinee companion, I grumbled that Yowzie felt like cruise-ship entertainment. She gasped at my impertinence and disagreed, replying that cruise-ships should be lucky to have such talented dancers.

The only program note from Tharp read “Simply put, Preludes and Fugues is the world as it ought to be, Yowzie as it is. The Fanfares celebrate both.” Yet perspective is a choice, and viewing life as a ship of fools is an imperious choice.

But Tharp’s inventiveness has certainly broadened the space that we traditionally call dance, and while it feels right to celebrate her lengthy and varied career, that has ornamented Broadway and ballet stages and more untraditional territory, it would have been more fitting to bring some of her iconic work on tour.

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