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In Reproach to Terror, Twyla Tharp Turns to the Gods of Order, Chaos and the Dance

Twyla Tharp Dance
Huffington Post

Some people respond to terror heroically. They are the first responders to an attack, those required to restore order and those who in theory seek to minimize the bloodshed. The next in line are the mediators of public record, the journalists -- writers and photographers -- who record the chaos before its devastation has been altered or remedied to establish the criteria of objectively shared accounts, always a dubitable intention, but least so when the event is ongoing or still fresh. After the chaos of immanent terror clears, the crowds take to the streets with their cameras and smart phones to impart the data to a concentric ring of receivers around the globe. Often the last to respond are the artists, though they too have been part of the larger crowd gathering record, for them the true response is one that is measured, whether spontaneously as in the case of the sketch artist, the expressionist painter or the poet, or after great durations of deliberation, as for the novelist, the screen or stage writer. And of course the longest response is that of the historian, who must put the record of events into a structural system of response years in the future even as the terror itself is forgotten. 

Somewhere among the late responders stands the choreographer. While the dancer can improvise her response to a cataclysm on the spot, the choreographer must devise a language of movement that must first be conveyed to a dancer who in turn must convey it to an audience. Learning that language in the muscles is of course excruciatingly slow, but because of the discipline required to maintain the order of dance even in its improvisation, it is the dancer who arguably delivers the most nuanced expression of emotion through an economy of human movement eminently suited for re-enacting in the mind and gut, if not the event of terror itself, certainly the emotional affects and responses to the event by the audience. Only the moving image is capable of delivering more varied and capacious information to more people in an instant. But only the dancer delivers the emotions and thoughts that build and bind the collective memory with an effort approaching the superhuman while remaining excruciatingly, erotically or even comically personal. 

Twyla Tharp's 50th Anniversary Tour may have ended in the US with November, but the imagery that she imparted on her 17-city tour have the lingering resonance of great art. Such a resonance is only in part the effect of the bitter irony that the dances Tharp premiered both grew out of the 9/11 terror in New York and were finally relayed to her New York audiences fourteen years later and just as the maniacal Islamic State taunted New Yorkers with a video threatening an immanent attack on Times Square equal to that unleashed on Paris November 15. Even had the irony of such terroristic confluences not convened for her New York premiere, Tharp's anniversary dances would just as likely stand out in the history of modern dance by offering its audience two opposing if historically-conjoined images to consider as responses to terror, and in the larger sense to the experience and conceptualization of Order and Chaos as the unremitting forces no one can escape.

It is this intimacy between discipline and hedonism that in the wake of the real terror around her that Tharp became acutely aware of the corresponding intimacy between order and chaos. Tharp chose the ever present contest between order and chaos to be the impetus for the dances rather than making them illustrative of or addressing the terror itself. To have made the terror the central and compelling motif would have been obscene, a prolongation of the assault itself.

How does such a stark polarization of human temperaments respond to the tragedy of 9/11? Tharp explains that "the two pieces are at extremes of the spectrum." While the dance set to Bach affirms the artist's trust "in the power art has to substitute order for chaos", the two dances together reflect the philosopher's most elementary lesson on the difference between, in Tharp's words, "the way the world should be," and "the way the world is."

Read the rest of the review here