Since 1965, Twyla Tharp has been an active choreographer, known for combining and juxtaposing moves from various dance styles in unexpected ways. To celebrate her 80th birthday, New York City Center presented Twyla Now, a program of her choreography, some old, some new, featuring dancers from New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Opening with Cornbread, which premiered in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the piece had a down-home, country kind of feel. With music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, there was a variety of songs that were country, bluesy, or folksy, with instruments like a banjo or sometimes with only clapping creating the rhythms.
The choreography was a mix of hoe-down or square dance and classical ballet. A pas de deux danced by the New York City Ballet dancers, Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia, it was joyous, fun, and wonderful to watch. These two extraordinary dancers moved in a clear, crisp fashion, showing every nuance of choreography with apparent ease – no matter how complicated. Sometimes they teased each other, or played off of one another while they shared the stage, and sometimes they performed bravura solos. Peck wore a short sundress and pointe shoes and Mejia showed off his manly muscles by wearing only tights.
After a pause, there was the world premiere of Second Duet. It was the most dramatic and emotional dance of the program. Wearing sneakers and casual sportswear, Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell of American Ballet Theatre were the handsome couple whose tempestuous and turbulent relationship ranged from argumentative to violent to clinging and physically dependent. Tharp’s choreography included complicated partnering in which elements of the relationship were uncomfortable and disturbing, or sometimes amusing (as an example, Trenary stood solidly and dared Bell to just try and pick her up). Without an actual story line, the dance was emotionally charged, revealing and riveting. Trenary and Bell gorgeously performed the complex choreography. Looking more like members of a modern dance troupe than classical ballet dancers, they brought emotional depth as well as physical ability to this taxing piece of work.
A modern music mix by Thomas Larcher and Aztec Camera played by the musicians Stephen Gosling (piano) and Gabriel Gabezas (cello) was sometimes as appropriately discordant as the relationship.
(Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater performed the piece on other dates. I would have been interested to see what they brought to the performance.)
Another pause, and then Pergolesi was presented. To music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Tharp had choreographed this for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov and performed it on November 27, 1992. But to mix things up, she recast the roles for this date. Sara Mearns danced Baryshnikov’s part and Robbie Fairchild danced Tharp’s part. Both wore the matching white outfits that had been designed by Santo Loquasto (white pants, sleeveless tops and white dance shoes). The music was performed by a group of musicians: Stephen Gosling, harpsichord; Nanae Iwata, first violin; Rebecca Anderson, second violin; Kyle Armbrust, viola; Gabriel Cabezas, cello and Andrew Trombley, bass. It’s always such a treat to hear music played live.
Fairchild seemed to add a touch of the feminine to his part, to reference Tharp. Not an imitation nor a caricature, he brought the unexpected moments of humor that is often in her choreography. Mearns was herself and not like Misha. It was a fun pas de deux, enjoyable for the technique, the display of virtuosity and the good spirits.
After an intermission, the world premiere of All In was presented. This piece included all the dancers we had seen earlier (Aran Bell, Robbie Fairchild, Sara Mearns, Roman Mejia, Tiler Peck, and Cassandra Trenary) along with James Gilmer and Jacqueline Harris and an ensemble of young dancers (Brady Farrar, Savannah Kristich, Zoe Liebold, Jaiden Galán Roman, Alycia Williams, and William Woodward) — and the musicians Stephen Gosling (piano) and Agnes Marchione (clarinet) who played the Brahms Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op.120. Loquasto designed the costumes that included black shorts and white tee shirts for the young ensemble.
Tharp choreographed this large work allowing professional dancers to perform in a complicated design of entrances and exits and elegant pas de deux while the young, enthusiastic dancers (really fine dancers of the future) were the moving background, a corps de ballet. At this point in her career, Tharp seems to be tipping her hat to the past, present and future.
At the curtain call, Twyla Tharp came out onto the stage. After all these years, and all the artistic output, and by showing that she still has the ability to create worthwhile choreography, she deserved the cheers that greeted her. What a wonderful way for all of us to celebrate her 80th birthday.
Twyla Now (November 17 – 21, 2021)
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours with two pauses and one intermission