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Twyla Tharp Dance / Joyce Theater, NYC / July 28 – August 9, 2003

Forever reinventing her career in choreography, Twyla Tharp just offered New York a throwback to her past.Filling in at the Joyce Theater for the canceled season of Ballet Tech, her chamber-size dance group presented repertory items that ranged from three decades back to 2001—with entirely new personnel.The old hands are ferociously and stunningly at work in “Movin’ Out,” the all-dancing, no dialogue show to Billy Joel songs with which Tharp has attempted to transform the Broadway musical.

Not unexpectedly, the eight current members of Twyla Tharp Dance reward watching. The ability to make dancers as well as dances is a major component of Tharp’s gift.She has an uncanny eye for singular bodies and temperaments, along with the ability to coax and whip a performer’s latent powers into their fullest expression.In the current gang, I particularly liked Whitney Simler—who had the least to do, but did it with delicacy and a droll sweetness that evoked the ingenuous blond heroines of yesteryear’s Hollywood comedies—and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, who emerged as the group’s unofficial star.Neshyba-Hodges combines glorious ballet technique with the least likely physique for classical work—that of a king’s jester.This odd coupling is enhanced by the most disarming smile I’ve seen on stage in many a season; it’s all modesty and delight.

The present troupe can’t claim to equal the original casts I saw in three of the four pieces presented:“The Fugue,” a landmark work that was the iconoclastic Tharp’s early letter to the world; the feisty, flirtatious “Known By Heart Duet”;“Westerly Round,” new to New York; and “Surfer at the River Styx,” which proposes marathon physical effort as the route to epiphany.Still—apart from some gratuitous vaudeville-style mugging and the insertion of acrobatic tricks where none previously existed—the current performers do these dances justice.

“Westerly Round” seems to be Tharp’s Americana piece.Think “Appalachian Spring” (Martha Graham). Think “Rodeo” (Agnes de Mille).Now think abstract and 60 years later. Tharp’s contribution to the O Pioneers! genre is a quartet, the basic square dance unit here twisted into comprising three guys and a single gal.Set to a jaunty fiddle score by Mark O’Connor, the choreography evokes frontier life, with its joys and sorrows, and the loneliness of the vast-plains landscape.After some lively group action, Neshyba-Hodges emerges as the hero in love, with the spunky, winsome Emily Coates as his sweetheart.The two other fellows get to play the hero’s rambunctious friends.The piece is lightweight, more a program filler and balancer than a keeper, but it confirms, once again, Tharp’s extraordinary ability to structure space in complex, infinitely satisfying ways.

Where will Tharp go from here?Recent interviews make no mention of new work for the concert dance stage. The venue seems to be too small for her:limited audience, no money, little clout.She’s consigning pieces from her rich repertory to other companies, high-end ballet troupes among them.Members of the present Twyla Tharp Dance will go into the touring company of “Movin’ Out,” whose title may well be prophetic.

Meanwhile, Tharp has written a book—apparently a How To manual on being creative, whatever one’s line of work—which she’ll be busy promoting.(The advance, she states flatly, paid for the two years of development she needed to make herBroadway venture fly.)My career in writing about dance coincided with Tharp’s evolution.My first professional piece was written about her, when she was an arrogant, ambitious, unique, and dazzlingly gifted neophyte, showing her work outdoors because she didn’t believe in theaters and vowing she’d let her dances vanish because she didn’t believe in repertory.Even then, her huge talent was unmistakable, and I’ve followed its course with unflagging interest.Her How To book, I’m told, emphasizes the importance of organized unremitting hard work.She knows whereof she speaks.

© 2003 Tobi Tobias

an ArtsJournal blog