Cal Performances program confirms Tharp’s genius

10.18.15
Twyla Tharp Dance
SF Gate

The major problem with the program that Twyla Tharp brought to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Friday evening, celebrating the choreographer’s 50th anniversary, is that she can exhaust you all too easily. Once a dance starts, there are no rest periods, the invention flows nonstop; the superb 12 dancers Tharp has chosen for this 17-city tour always seem capable of dazzling you with an inflection, suggesting a hidden meaning underlying a gesture. Great choreographers can do that.

The two new pieces on this Cal Performances-sponsored event serve neither as retrospective of a half century’s dance making nor as a harbinger of the future. Rather consider them confirmations of an extraordinary talent, one that can still find riches embedded in a well-traversed path. “Preludes and Fugues” explores Bach’s music in a more extended way than Tharp has done before. “Yowzie” avails itself of early-American jazz masterworks rerecorded by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein. Each of these works is preceded by a brassy new fanfare by John Zorn. The first, at least, sounds like Gabrieli at 20th Century Fox.

Tharp set “Preludes and Fugues” to 20 movements of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (heard in a fine recorded performance by David Korevaar), repeating the C major prelude at the end. It starts with a courtly, almost waltzing, duet with Savannah Lowery and Tharp veteran John Selya. It ends 45 minutes later with the dozen dancers holding hands in a circle. This is the first time we see the entire complement of dancers (the guys wear Santo Loquasto’s simple tan shirts and trousers, the women wear short ballet skirts) all together onstage, and despite the obviousness of the movement it summons a feeling of finality.

Still, in spite of a few inert sections, the sheer energy carries you along. Tharp mingles ballet and modern vocabulary as she desires it, and it is not surprising to see an excellent dancer like Matthew Dibble scrunched on the floor in one section and launching a perfect arabesque in another. Other episodes, like Selya’s prancing boxer moves, seem like inspirations of the moment.

Amid all the phalanxes of leaping men (recalling Paul Taylor, in whose company Tharp danced briefly), one hungers for fewer feats and a greater emotional response to the Bach music. That comes later. As one dancer starts spinning, Sufi-like, with flat extended palms, others follow. Serenity is evoked; it’s one of Tharp’s treasurable moments.

“Yowzie,” of course, descends from “Eight Jelly Rolls,” and the jazz dances that followed. Tharp revolutionized classic American pop dances, allowing upper bodies the freedom such infectious music evokes. This is how most of us respond instinctively to the sound of Jelly Roll Morton and “Fats” Waller, and Tharp imported it all to the stage.

Loquasto has fashioned zany multicolored costumes for “Yowzie.” The choreographer plunges her dancers into a classy vaudeville, in which they slip and side, arch their backs and hunt for mates. And it is simply irresistible.

Here, veteran Rika Okamoto comes into her own, and she is downright hilarious, slinking, slouching and scratching her bare midriff. Garbed like a Roman centurion, Daniel Carter struts around the stage. Selya becomes a carnival barker. No one walks when they can flounce, and the results suggest that this music has released the anarchic spirit in all of them, and us, too. James F. Ingalls did the lighting. Loquasto designed the riotously colored Rosenquist-like mural.