Twyla Tharp worked on Zoom during the pandemic. It was a lot. “The whole time, I was wondering, well, when are we actually going to put bodies back into real places at real times?” she said in a recent interview. “And it was not possible until relatively very recently.”
She wasn’t referring to bubbles, she said, but to the flood of performances that have made this fall season feel almost as robust as any other. She was determined to put on a show, even though no one could have predicted it. Tharp turned 80 to celebrate a milestone birthday.
“We leveraged my age into an evening,” she said, laughing. “You know, I have no shame. Whatever it takes. That’s what I did. Nothing new there.”
What IsThe program she created is brand new. While Tharp has presented evenings of work over the past few years, none have felt as poignant and sharp, as charming and as wise in their blending of past and present, as “Twyla Now,” which she will unveil at New York City Center beginning Wednesday. It’s the right dances, the right dancers, the right time.
The cast includes members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, along with six ensemble dancers, ages 14 to 21, who represent the future to Tharp — as all young dancers do. They were found online by her. Savannah Kristich was a competition dancer, and the youngest. Tharp sent her an email and she packed her bag straight away. “She’s a living legend,” said Kristich, who lives in Las Vegas. “She changed dance Histories.”
Kristich is wild and precise but also has a Tharpian bent to dancing. She loves to be free. She knows a lot of younger dancers worry about what they look like to others when they’re moving; not her. “I do what I think is fitting me, and she’s a huge inspiration on that,” Kristich said of Tharp.
The younger cast join the professionals in the program’s last dance, “All In,” a premiere set to Brahms, in which moments from the show’s previous works — three duets — float in and out like slivers of phantom choreography. In a feat structural counterpoint, the past and the present mix in phrases.
It’s a Tharp signature, but it’s also her way of saying the past and the present are equal entities. “I’d be sort of bare in a way just trying to start out anew,” she said, “without referencing, without using the foundation that I already have.”
For the program, she starts with works she already has — sort of. The first of the three is the most straightforward: the lively “Cornbread,” a 2014 duet, danced by Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia of New York City Ballet and set to music by the string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. It’s a virtuosic display of daring speed and glittering musicality.
“Everybody’s going to go, she’s crazy,” Tharp said. “That was the end, wasn’t it? What do you do next? What do you do next?”
A pair of dances brings back vintage choreography in a fresh way. For the new “Second Duet,” danced by James Gilmer and Jacquelin Harris of Ailey, Tharp unearthed improvisations she performed with Kevin O’Day in 1991 when she was devoted to weight training.
Set to music by Thomas Larcher, “Second Duet” requires superhuman strength and trust: a display of lifts and dips that the dancers seem to be inventing on the spot. The woman is not passive when she does overhead balances. She relies on her upper back strength for her weight. You see the effort and the struggle, but there’s also something else at play.
For Tharp, after the elite athleticism of “Cornbread,” the new dance “shows what it takes to be a human,” she said. “Trying to identify yourself in relation to another person is what this whole duet is about — and is, in fact, what all duets are about.”
Gilmer and Harris spent months studying the movement from archival footage. It begins as something of a battle and becomes more playful over time — but also more vulnerable as the dancers continue their conversation through falling and catching, support and control — tenets of modern dance. “It’s tearing down walls and taking off layers to be your most honest self,” Harris said.
“Pergolesi” is a different sort of experiment. For it, Tharp has taken a duet that she choreographed for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1992, and set it on Robbie Fairchild, a former City Ballet principal and Tony-nominated lead for the Broadway musical “An American in Paris,” and Sara Mearns, a City Ballet principal known for stretching herself far beyond ballet. (During the program, Mearns performs in jazz shoes, pointe shoes and ballet slippers — an athletic tour de force, says Tharp.)
There are many twists. One is that they are learning the dance — which was never performed exactly the same way — from a video of one specific performance. The other is that Fairchild will be dancing Tharp’s part while Mearns takes on Baryshnikov’s.
“It’s the return of the ghosts, right?” Tharp said at a recent rehearsal while surveying Fairchild and Mearns.
At first, the prospect of becoming one of those ghosts — Baryshnikov — was daunting to Mearns. “I was like, What?” she said. “There’s no way I can do that. Let’s just be honest here. Misha is impossible. Nobody. He is one in every lifetime. But then again, you know me: I’m never going to say no.”
In the duet — competitive, playful, arduous — the two dancers never touch. “It is androgynous in a way,” Mearns said. “When you watch the performance video, it’s not male, female. It’s two insanely independent human beings doing their thing.”
She doesn’t look at Tharp when she studies the video, only Baryshnikov, whose “abundance of strength was unlike any other,” she said. “He was so grounded and nothing was ever off. It was as if he was always on the right track. There was no wiggle room or arm flapping. It was hard for him. NotIt’s your job to keep it up. My favorite place to be is off” — that is, she likes to fall away from a balance, to turn a seemingly fixed position into a motion.
Fairchild, for his part, feels a kinship to Tharp. As he put it, “We’re in the ballet world, but we like to jazz it up.”
He can feel his body changing as soon as he starts to dance. He shrinks his torso to try to be like her. “It’s fun to also think about who she is — as a trailblazer, as a female choreographer in a world of men,” Fairchild said. “It’s this little firecracker who was just out to stick it to the man, dancing next to the greatest ballet dancer of all time. The world that she created for herself was hard-earned.”
“Pergolesi” is painstaking work. In one solo, Fairchild performs Tharp’s improvised version of what she just watched Baryshnikov dance; in another, Mearns references roles from Baryshnikov’s classical repertory, and that expands the gender experiment even further: Here, she’s not only dancing a man’s part, she’s dancing male parts from the classical ballet canon.
It can be confusing. Fairchild was stuck during rehearsal. “What are we saying here?” he asked Tharp about a lower-than-usual energy moment.
“We’re saying stall,” she said. “The guy’s exhausted.”
The guy is Mearns — meaning Baryshnikov. At this point, he’s dead. “You come in and you actually have the tiniest tad of compassion. Very little! But you have a tiny touch of compassion here.”
Mearns squealed with laughter. She loves how in the dance, Tharp — now Fairchild — has the last say. “I finish and I think she’s going to finish, but then she keeps going,” Mearns said later. “I think it’s just so her, right? She’s like, this is my dance, I made this.”
While demonstrating another view of partnering — in many ways, the program is a study of that, too — “Pergolesi” is part of a bigger picture: the diversity that exists within Tharp’s vision. “You work your way back and forth between all of these disparities: racial diversity, sexual diversity, gender, stylistic, and you get to a common point,” she said. “And that, to me, has always been a big part of what the dances do. They are a societal statement of possibility, of inclusion.”
How can we understand and see the world? When many different styles of dance live together on a stage — Tharp was the first choreographer to make a crossover ballet, mixing ballet with modern dance — what is created? That boils down to her message of the evening and what she’s been trying to say from the start, when in the 1970s she worked intimately with a group of women of varying sizes and shapes, with different dance backgrounds and from different cultures.
“It’s all about community,” she said. “Each one of the dances is my hope for a perfect world where people can actually correspond, communicate, grow together, work together, respect together. And the happier the world, the greater the diversity. What’s more? This is what dance does.”
Source: NY Times