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'Good, Better, Best'

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'All-Tharp' Program

by Dean Speer

September 27, 2008 -- Seattle

Artists tend to fall into two camps – those that are Apollonian and those that are Dionysian.  Thinkers versus Feelers, the Classical versus Romantic.  Historically, each struggling for hegemony.

While certainly a mover, Twyla Tharp impresses me as a very cerebral dance maker – one very interested in problem solving, how to make and re-make a movement motif, who focuses her attention on details.

Pacific Northwest Ballet has made a very large artistic investment in Tharp, which includes two pieces staged for them previously and, importantly, two new creations made “in-house” by the choreographer herself during a nearly two-month summer residency.  PNB has acquired two pieces that are solid Tharp.

Visual and aural “tension” in art is a good thing – this provides textural highs and lows, and a good kind of “conflict.”  In dance, we ideally like the music and choreography to play off of each, and to complement, rather than to mimic wholesale.  Of course, there are times, such as in programmatic music where narrative should be followed, as in the Prokofiev “Romeo and Juliet.”  But even then it doesn’t have to play out exactly, such as a “big” sound expressed by a “big” movement.  The music provides the platform and superstructure on which to hang and dress the choreography.  I like to think that the two come together to create a third thing: the art.  This newborn art is the thing that gets us excited and which, hopefully, moves and elevates us.

I believe Tharp, just by being who she is, has this desired tension built naturally into her works. She is the artisan who wrestles with her movement material, to master and conquer it – to be in control of it.  Yet, as controlled as it may be, the overall patina is that of a casual air, which shows itself particularly in “Opus 111" made to the Brahms quintet of the same title.

In response to my query why she chose this music over the originally announced Brahms symphony, she replied that she felt it was a more mature, deeper and better composition.  She also offered that she had originally planned to only use three of the four movements, but after staging three, she saw that her work was “unbalanced” and expanded it to include all four sections.

I agree the music is fabulous, and I enjoyed how it begins with Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in a weight-shift pattern that launches them into a walking pattern as they “find” each other.  Too soon enters a small group that interrupts our focus on the couple, who go off, presumably still finding each other.

One movement idea that Tharp does not develop or augment in any way is when two dancers sit facing the audience with their feet together, clasping their ankles and rolling – an exercise straight from Pre-Ballet class.  Since she only showed it once and didn’t extend it, as she does her other motifs, I think it could be safely discarded and “Opus 111" would not be worse off.  Tharp impresses me as being strict, and here she wasn’t as strict with herself as she could have been.  As much as she does use compositional tools to develop motifs, I might throw caution to the wind and venture that she has given us too many of them; too much material.  I’d like to see her pare it down by maybe a third (not shorten overall length of the work) and develop the remaining two-thirds more.  The lively, fun, bouncy and buoyant material that does “go” and “move” could then really go further.  “Opus 111" is already a popular work with the audience, one in which the dancers have fun, and one that I predict will remain in PNB’s repertory for future audiences to enjoy.

While perhaps a strange and slightly dark work, her second new piece for PNB was, I thought, in some ways the more successful of the two.  “Afternoon Ball” depicts three tortured souls, one of whom is led to a “better place” at the end by an ethereal vision emblazoned in white.

Guest Artist Charlie Neshyba-Hodges was amazing as the central character as were Kaori Nakamura and Olivier Wevers.  Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov appear as a Byronically dressed couple who waltz and sway their way upstage, seemingly oblivious to the chaos in front of them, except Lallone returns as the white goddess who envelops Neshyba-Hodges, accompanying him into light.  Neshyba-Hodges has technique to spare, and has made a significant career using and developing a body that’s not typical of ballet work.

Her 1982 “Nine Sinatra Songs” is a delightful work which depicts couples who each approach their turns on the dance floor quite differently – from the sultry and soulful, to the blissfully happy, to mismatch and “intentional” mistakes, to the last couple whose tempestuous relationship is played out – all concluding with all the couples coming on stage for one, last dance.  Delightfully well cast and matched were Jodie Thomas and Josh Spell as a sprightly nose-rubbing young couple.  I tend to think of Louise Nadeau in more ethereal parts, so its fun to enjoy her in something quite different; in this case, as one half of the couple whose dance is more of a contest of wills than a flutey duet.

Having Tharp experience the Northwest [“I saw Mount Rainier once and that body of water...what do you call it?  It’s not the ocean...oh, yes, Puget Sound!”] was hopefully good for her, but having her in residence was definitely good for both the company and the audience.  Good because she herself reminded the public of the importance of tradition, e.g., a thorough grounding in classical ballet: “How can you be off center, if you don’t know what center is?” [there is a Philistine segment of the vox populi that thinks ballet has had its day and should be shelved] and of how it’s possible to take these traditions, and use them to burst through fetters into artistic unknowns of the present and the future.

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