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Twyla Tharp and Three Dances

A fascinating and revealing snapshot of three periods in the creative output of Twyla Tharp.

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Kaitlyn Gilliland and Eva Trapp in a scene from Twyla Tharp’s “Country Dances” (Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu)

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Eva Trapp in a scene from Twyla Tharp’s “Country Dances” (Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]Twyla Tharp is back with Twyla Tharp and Three Dances, a program that showcases works from 1976 to today, a snapshot of three periods of her creative journey.

From 1976, “Country Dances” represented the post-experimental avant-garde phase after breakout success with her ballets for major dance companies.  From 1980, there was “Brahms Paganini,” her entrée into her hybrid style combining her eccentric, seemingly casual movements with the classical ballet vocabulary and from 2016, “Beethoven Opus 130,” virtually a classical ballet with quirky touches.

“Country Dances,” a quartet to a suite of old-fashioned country songs, puts a combination of country-western, line dancing and square dancing steps through the Tharp ringer with the help of Santo Loquasto’s bizarre, colorful abstractions of Grand Ole Opry sartorial splendor.  The result is a decidedly confusing, amusing mess of a ballet with the humor forced and artificial.

John Selya, the sole male, wasn’t in his usual top form, hampered by an ill-fitting, unflattering costume and by the awkward partnering duties he had to perform which included being bombarded by each of the three ladies (compact powerhouse Amy Ruggiero, sensual Eva Trapp and elegant Kaitlyn Gilliland) who alternately flung themselves at him, hung off of him, wrapped themselves around him or leaned precariously against him.  In between, the four sauntered and bounced about the stage, kicking, twirling, rolling on the floor, etc., all to ill-used country/western ditties.  Lightweight is the only word to describe “Country Dances.”

“Brahms Paganini” (1980), to Brahms’ take on the same Paganini theme so masterfully expanded upon much later by Rachmaninoff, was in two parts, called Book I and Book II.  The dancers were dressed in Ralph Lauren’s chic tennis wear.

Reed Tankersley in Tharp’s “Brahms Paganini, Book I” (Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu)

Reed Tankersley in Tharp’s “Brahms Paganini, Book I” (Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu)

“Book I,” Reed Tankersley’s demanding, nearly ten minute solo to the opening theme and variations, was brilliantly executed by this calmly masterful dancer.  He took and kept the stage despite the demanding, swirling movement palette given him by Ms. Tharp.  He did his best to connect the disconnected mishmash of ballet poses and tours de force, casual walking and Tharp’s distinctive shtick:  bent-legged walks with arms jabbing forward; balances interrupted by sudden head leans; stopping mid-step to stare straight at the audience; undulating torsos; and little vibrations of the shoulders.

In “Book II,” led by Ms. Gilliland, Daniel Baker (ebullient and quite blonde), Nicholas Coppula (tall and lanky), Ms. Ruggiero and Ramona Kelley (tough, yet lyrical) were put through their paces which included lots of oddball partnering—like two men hoisting a woman high up under her armpits—and dashing about in confusing entrances and exits.  This was mostly a Tharpian study in quicksilver partnering. The mood was playful as the Brahms score tinkled on and on, the dancers often—too often—smiling at the audience.

“Beethoven Opus 130,” to a portion of one of the late String Quartets (used so effectively by Paul Taylor in his masterpiece “Orbs”) and another Beethoven opus, was led by charismatic, technically gifted Matthew Dibble and Ms. Gilliland.

Wearing the all black Norma Kamali outfits—featuring tops for the men with sleeves anchored to the waist, giving them winglike arms—the dancers performed recognizably classical movements and hit sophisticated formations—including silhouetted lines working against each in different tempos—unseen in the other works on the program.  Ms. Gilliland’s costume stood out for its long, sheer black skirt and she herself was elegant and spacious in her movements. Two of the men, for some reason, stripped off their tops and crawled bare-chested across the stage during quiet moments of the heavy-duty, emotionally laden score.

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Matthew Dibble in “Beethoven Opus 130” (Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu)

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Matthew Dibble in “Beethoven Opus 130” (Photo credit: Yi-Chun Wu)

“Opus 130” was the meatiest work on the program.

Tharp’s choreography may be intellectually and even kinesthetically interesting, but it lacks one important element: emotional weight.  There was not one real emotion expressed on the Joyce stage, unless one considers goofiness an emotion.  There was no passion or heat, except for the performers’ obvious joy dancing her steps.  All relationships were reduced to eccentric partnering in which the women were tossed, turned upside down, dragged or otherwise manipulated:  interesting steps, but none that add up to either cohesive, flowing statements or expressions of the rainbow of human emotions.

She is not the most musical choreographer, either.  Certainly, she parses her musical scores with great skill and responds to them rhythmically, but she skates over them, never getting deeply involved or illuminating subtleties or nuance.  Of course, in a fifty-year career there are one or two notable exceptions—e.g. “Sweet Fields,” her ballet to Shaker songs—in which her choreography seemed deeply affected by the music.   Only rarely does Tharp make you hear music differently the way that Balanchine or Paul Taylor have so often done.

One great thing is that Tharp has no physical type she prefers and, in fact, mixes, sometimes awkwardly, different heights, builds and personalities.

Master lighting designer Jennifer Tipton designed the dramatic lighting for the two older works and Stephen Terry—far less subtly—the new work.

Twyla Tharp and Three Dances (July 11-23, 2016)

Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan

For Tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit

Running time: One hour and 40 minutes including two intermissions

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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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