Review: A 50th anniversary tour worthy of Twyla Tharp's talents

Twyla Tharp Dance
San Jose Mercury News

On Friday at Zellerbach Hall, choreographer Twyla Tharp refused to let her dancers settle in. It was the opening night of the Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour, which continues in Berkeley through Sunday, and no sooner did the dancers launch a seamless classical movement phrase to the exquisite counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach then they had to undo it with a bit of soft shoe, tango or two-step. 

After intermission they shimmied to the irresistible jazz rhythms of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton while intermittently breaking into yoga poses.

This was nothing new for the doyenne of high-low dance. Since the Indiana-born, California-raised choreographer launched her career in 1965 with the comically absurd "Tank Dive," complete with swimming fins, yo-yo, and high heels, she has been kicking sand in the face of uptown and downtown dance alike. Beginning as an iconoclast with breathtaking musicality and comic genius as a dancer, she tore down the barriers separating ballet from boogaloo, ballroom and modern dance. She then concocted fusions of elegance, funk, romance and comic-book Gothic. Her works ranged from masterpieces to noodling. 

Tharp also worked both sides of the aisle. Besides making the first "cross-over" ballet, "Deuce Coupe," (1973, American Ballet Theatre), she set about mounting Broadway shows like "Singin' in the Rain and "Movin' Out," and choreographing films like "Hair" and "Amadeus." Now 74, with more than 160 works to her name, she is on a 17-city tour with her gifted dancers in a program that looks back at her complex career. 

The night opened with a short "First Fanfare," set to glistening brass sound by composer John Zorn -- literally, a brief herald that called the program to order. It moved on to "Preludes and Fugues" for the subversively classical portion of the night -- what Tharp, in the program, notes refered to as "the world as it ought to be," counterbalanced in the second half with "Yowzie," representing the world "as it is." 

Although "Preludes" is classically framed by Bach music, it nevertheless deliciously erupted with movement flashbacks to the choreographer's own dance past and allusions to the myriad idioms of 20th-century dance. Trained in ballet, gymnastics, baton twirling and the work of Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham, Tharp, who has a comedian's sense of timing, made balletic arabesques suddenly dissolve into "The Castle Walk," or asked a dancer to drop seamlessly into a Graham plank from elegant heights. 

These were like beautiful tremors in what otherwise could have been a placid stream, and were set to 21 of the 24 preludes and fugues of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier," book one. As these sublime musical segments veered from the swift and optimistic to the melancholic and slow, the choreographer mirrored, upended and countered the sounds to create an abstract human drama that flowed like water.

With exquisite moments dashed subversively -- by the sudden comic squiggle of Berkeley native Ramona Kelley's head at the top of balletic jumps; Kaitlyn Gilliland's neoclassical arabesque that stretched so far it conveyed sexual heat; a quartet of bodies dancing with metronomic constancy while another four danced with spare punctuation; a brief dance of death; and a final beautiful, elegiac processional in the round, echoing the earliest modern dance -- "Preludes" was a knockout. 

"Yowzie" was led by longtime Tharp dancer John Selya, who at 45, dances with winsome gravitas. This work has few bones, and that is both its strength and weakness. Lacking the rigorous structure of "Preludes," "Yowzie" devolves into patterned, two-dimensional shtick, and fusion becomes a kind of desultory procession. The aimlessness wasn't helped by Santo Loquasto's hellish tie-dyed costumes, which seemed to conjoin the Beverly Hillbillies with the Grateful Dead -- my idea of a nightmare. Still, Tharp finds redemption in this goofiness. The dance's brain-dead pleasure seekers are foolish souls, not vicious ones, benighted but not bad. 

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