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Twyla Tharp Dance: Winter Season 2024

Two world premieres and a revival bring this world famous troupe back to New York City.

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Jake Tribus, Daisy Jacobson, Miriam Gittens, Reed Tankersley and Skye Mattox in a scene from Twyla Tharp’s “Ocean’s Motion,” part of Twyla Tharp Dance at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Steven Pisano)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left”] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

When you’re a cultural reference in a Hollywood movie, you know you have made it.  Check out Robin Williams’ wicked take on Twyla Tharp in The Birdcage (1996).  He also mimics Martha Graham and Bob Fosse placing Tharp squarely in their superstar club.

Her troupe, Twyla Tharp Dance at The Joyce Theater in Chelsea is presenting one oldie ballet and two world premieres.

Tharp has a splendid history of choreographing ballets to popular songs and some of these ballets like the ones to Sinatra, Billy Joel and the Beach Boys are masterpieces.

Daisy Jacobson in a scene from Twyla Tharp’s “Ocean’s Motion,” part of Twyla Tharp Dance at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Steven Pisano)

Her opening ballet is a fairly early work called “Ocean’s Motion” (1975) using the music associated with Chuck Berry to create an easy-going, entertaining bit of fluff.  Although lighthearted, “Ocean’s Motion” puts her dancers through their paces, ones few performers could match.  Only classically trained dancers possess the control Tharp demands.

Wearing Santo Loquasto’s colorful period stylings, the five dancers—Miriam Gittens, Daisy Jacobson, Skye Mattox, Reed Tankersley and Jake Tribus—whip through Tharp’s witty variations on the Pony, the Swim and the Hully Gully.   Of course, this being a Tharp work, they also twirl and leap.

The first premiere, “Brel,” to five songs by Jacques Brel, is a long solo performed by ballet star Herman Cornejo (alternating with Daniel Ulbricht).  Dressed all in black, Cornejo is a moody figure, always in deep thought, the movements created by Tharp exposing these thoughts and emotions.

Herman Cornejo in a scene from Twyla Tharp’s “Brel,” part of Twyla Tharp Dance at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Steven Pisano)

Like her masterful Sinatra solo for Mikhail Baryshnikov, “Brel” takes Cornejo from a strolling meditating figure (“Quand On N’A Que l’Amour”) to an anguished lover (“Ne Me Quitte Pas”).  Cornejo twists and thrashes until the song “Amsterdam” had him gliding all over the stage.  The mood rises through “Les Marquises” and “Marieke,” matching Brel’s penchant for crescendo, leading Cornejo into jags of runs, leaps, turns and wilder gestures.

Although not as immediate a success as her other ballets to songs, “Brel” will soon be a favorite of solo danseurs all over the ballet world.

“The Ballet Master,” the most complex ballet on the program and the second premiere, is also a mystery from its choreography—and lack thereof—to its odd blending of backstage intrigue and its fantastical trip to Don Quijote.  Its score, an oddball combination of a pop vocalize with Vivaldi adds to the oddball mood of the piece.

John Selya, Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Ulbricht (clockwise from top) in a scene from Twyla Tharp’s “The Ballet Master,” part of Twyla Tharp Dance at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Steven Pisano)

Simeon ten Holt’s “BI BA BO,” rhythmically complicated scat-type music—think the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on speed—accompanies a rehearsal led by Tharp stalwart John Selya (still vibrant and technically assured, tossing off double air turns and multiple pirouettes).

As two male dancers, Tankersley and Tribus, fool around, they established an oft-repeated theme: a dancer falls and offers his hand to a partner who pulls them up.

The mood is casual as are the loose rehearsal costumes.  A pair of female dancers lounge and stretch way upstage, soon joining the men.  It has an unstructured feel, mimicking how dancers put bits and pieces together when they rehearse.

Daniel Ulbricht, Miriam Gittens and Daisy Jacobson in a scene from Twyla Tharp’s “The Ballet Master,” part of Twyla Tharp Dance at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Steven Pisano)

Suddenly, a Vivaldi concerto starts and Ulbricht enters giving Selya a costume that sends him back to the days of Spain’s golden age, eliciting a host of daydreams.

An ethereal Dulcinea on point floats back and forth in a froth of tulle, tantalizing Don Q, Selya and his Sancho Panza, Ulbricht.  “The Ballet Master” then alternates between the rehearsal and the dreamlike Don Q fantasy.

Though not one of Tharp’s sharply constructed ballets, “The Ballet Master,” clearly an homage to Selya, has an undercurrent of sadness and tenderness, more than other Tharp works.  Ultimately, it doesn’t make much sense, but it’s clear that Tharp loves Selya and also the tough life of dancers.

As usual, all the technical elements are top drawer, including the costumes by Loquasto and the lighting by the great Jennifer Tipton and James F. Ingalls.

Twyla Tharp Dance: Winter Season 2024 (through February 25, 2024)

Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit http://www.joyce.org

Running time: 90 minutes including one intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (561 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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