Twyla Tharp Dance
Friday, October 10, 2003
Campbell Hall, UCSB
I just spent an enjoyable evening watching Twyla Tharp Dance perform 4 pieces. The energy, commitment, and technical finish of the dancers along with the almost seamlessly eclectic and energetic choreography of Tharp made for a thoroughly entertaining evening.
Opening the performance was "Known By Heart Duet", which was either an affectionate satire or a modern update of the classical grand pas de deux, set to percussion music by Donald Knaack. With the boy set competing against the girl, this PDD recasts traditional structure with modern touches: both still get their variation, and come together at the end, though not necessarily in harmony. The boy struts about, with Tharp successfully transforming classical ballet movement to macho preening, with a healthy chunk of contemporary dance moves, ticks, and gestures thrown in. The girl's part brings to the surface the narcissism inherent in the girl's part for almost every classical pas de deux. Matthew Dibble danced his part with an over-the-top confidence, coolness, and arrogance that made it all work, with Lynda Sing playing his catty competitor.
"The Fugue" followed next, and was a stark contrast to the crowd-pleasing duet. Set to no music, with only the amplified footfalls of the dancers accompanying the movement, three dancers, Whitney Simler, Jason McDole, and Dario Vaccaro, played out several exercises on-stage. Each exercise seemed to be marked out by the same dancer's slaps on his thigh, each one perhaps denoting the exercise number. At first, I thought about tap's influence, but the sparseness of the footfalls, as well as deliberately lengthy displays of silence, along with the complicated, expressive patterns of the upper body quickly changed that. In fact, it was difficult at first for me to pay attention to the entire dance because I kept looking at their feet, trying to figure out if there was a patter at work. The lower body movements were done with mostly no turn out, while the upper-body movements reminded me of Paul Taylor with its exuberant and large dances. It was also interesting to me that the choreography seemed androgynous in that Simler's part were not very different in scale or movement from the two men. There is definitely some kind of build-up as the ending was fairly clear, even with no complementary musical ending to mark it, as the density of the dance built up to a climax, and I didn't perceive pauses that I thought were false endings, but I'd have to watch this dance again to make more sense of it in my mind.
After the thought-provoking "The Fugue" came "Westerly Round", a light, optimistic, funny, sunny piece set to Mark O'Connor's "Call of the Mockingbird". Three men dance in a ring with one woman. Are they competing for her attention? Who is the obviously central man whose costume and choreography subtly differentiate him from the other two, who seem to be related to each other? Are there really three men, or is it one man and his alter-egos/consciences/conflicts that have to be placated or resolved before he can be with the woman? Whatever the motivations, this piece provided David Neshyba-Hodges the opportunity to show his great technical skills, including multiple, rock-solid pirouettes that come to stop on releve on one leg in complete control, the quick transitions between turns, fast batterie work, and his high, suspended jumps. Movement here was mostly ballet-based with a bunch of fun self-conscious mugging from the dancers as the got into various socially interesting and awkward situations. Emily Coates was winsome in her role as the girl being pursued.
Last up was the dark "Surfer at the River Styx" with its two male protaganists (Matthew Dibble and Neshyba-Hodges) and a corps of black-clothed dancers (Coates, Sin, McDole, and Vaccaro). Lighting throughout most of the piece was quite dark, with the dancers appearing to as shadowy figures. Each protaganist had his own set of corps dancers, with the girls following Dibble, and the boys following Neshyba-Hodges. Dances alternated between each group, with both groups coming together near the end. The dances were mostly solo pieces for the leads, with the corps reinforcing or providing contrast to what the soloists were doing --- they didn't physically interact until the end in the heaven sequence. Movement was unique for each group, with Dibble's group being faster, petite allegro like moves, and Neshyba-Hodge's group being more grand allegro, though there were certainly elements of both in both men's dances. I found the heaven sequence interesting in its solution to a common problem for me with many men lifting one woman up --- the lighting lit up only the upper half of the stage so the men lifting the women weren't very visible, and the illusion of the woman moving through the air was better. As a narrative, I found Surfer very satisfying, especially again with a noticeable buildup to a climax and denouement without really obvious cues in the music (Knaack's percussion music). Technically, the dancers were again superb in this piece, but with the obvious virtuosity of the dancers serving the piece instead of being an end in itself.
I really enjoyed this evening, especially the direct, energetic way the choreography communicated to the audience, and the skills and energy of the dancers. I would not hesitate to see Twyla Tharp Dance again, or recommend them to anyone, dance fan or novice.