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Twyla Tharp Dance Company

“Westerly Round,” “Even the King,” “Surfer at the River Styx”

by Toba Singer

January 17, 2003 -- Marin Civic Center, San Rafael, CA

For any audience, but especially one that hasn’t seen Twyla Tharp’s work previously, “Westerly Round” makes for an especially good opener. To the stylized music “Call of the Mockingbird,” by Mark O’Connor, it places the Tharp duality center stage in a kind of “Rodeo”-derivative, “Appalachian Spring”-derivative piece that invokes traditional dance forms and scuttles them, all at the same time. This is what Tharp is all about; it’s a synopsis of the career-long conundrum that has gained her the stature and admiration that remains with us today.

Emily Coates dances what look to be balletic steps, custom-tailored to her strengths, “turned-in,” as we sometimes call work in parallel. It has that carefree, "aw-shucks" tomboy-Tharp scuffiness at its core, and renders Coates a magnet for the three men who follow her onto the stage. The men’s choreography is also carefully tapered to point up their strengths, as they dance dos y dos and other twinings around each other and with Coates. They’re all tuned to the fiddle music in O’Connor’s composition, and the effect is both lighthearted and penetrating, as limbs vibrate with the fiddle strings. In Coates’s solo, there is a faux-tentative halting quality that makes us pay attention to each phrase.

A male dancer begins a duet where first there is no notice or acknowledgment between the dancers, and then, contrariwise, there’s a full-out, playful romp that draws in the other two men. While this reviewer has a well-established distaste for street clothes-as-costume, I must admit that these off-the-rack duds work well because they don’t seem pedestrian or intrusive. In combination with the loose-necked spins that come at the top of the quartet, they contribute to the kid-like, after-school-romp spirit of the work. Power and technique are the specialty of Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, and the audience roundly salutes his contributions throughout the program. Jason McDole is the solid citizen of the ensemble, and Dario Vaccaro, in spite of a wobble here and there in his extensions, presents a glowing line in his adage. Coates remains radiantly expectant throughout.

The second piece on the program, “Even the King,” opens (somewhat inexplicably) with just an ordinary plastic and steel stack chair on the stage. This is a story ballet centering around a dance-away lover (Lynda Sing), set to a Johann Strauss waltz (Kaiserwalzer, Opus 437), and so the chair as a prop is a puzzle I still haven’t managed to solve.

The male soloist, Matthew Dibble, begins a series of modified balancés as lights and shadows criss-cross above him to form a kind of skylight. With the addition of a few arabesque en dehors turns, the balancés reach deeper into the floor. More dancers enter, and finally Sing arrives to be Dibble’s willowy-armed waltz partner. The waltz partnering is juicy, carrying forward the momentum of the deep floor work at the top of the piece. The women dance jewel-like, each in a different-colored, cropped, flowered georgette. The men are their “settings.” Charlie Neshyba-Hodges dances out a richer confection than he was able to show us in “Westerly Rounds” because of the limits set by the previous piece’s choreography. Dario Vacarro gives us the quintessential peacock of a rival to Dibble. In a single downbeat, he takes the floor and Sing from Dibble. Dibble recovers from his bewilderment, and the waltz joust begins in earnest with both of Ms. Sing’s partners and the other men thrown into the competition for good measure.

There are always two stories going on in Ms. Tharp’s work, as well as two dance disciplines. She simply cannot leave one for the other and that rivalry/ambivalence is alive and well in this piece. Sometimes the contenders take notice of each other and sometimes not, as was also evident in the previous piece. In spite of its regal title, “Even the King” exudes a kind of Tin Pan Alley melancholy. The chorus of dancers who support the operetta-like shenanigans onstage, dance persuasively enough to exert a polarity that pulls the loser-lover off-stage into the wings with them at the close of the piece. Then the lights dim, just like on Broadway…

The evening’s closer was Ms. Tharp’s tour de force and least derivative work of this program, unless an accidental reincarnation-suggestion of the Fakirs in “La Bayadere” happens to occur to you.

“Surfer at the River Styx” is set to a musical composition by Donald Knaack, and opens with the syncopation of chimes, intimating correctly that this is a work that follows its own clock. The dancers are dressed in black tights cut off at the knee, the men bare-chested and the women in black bras. The set could be the back of a stadium, or a subway, or a grotto, any or all remnants of which would make for an appropriate backdrop to the River Styx in its modern encryption. The dancers seem to wash themselves in the chants that rise from the syncopation.

Ms. Tharp’s arabesque-extended arm slices look different here. They move from stock-phrase trademarks into a kind of ritual, hypnotic, trance-inducing holography of what our culture has washed up for us. A set of triplet movements enmeshes into a complex grapevine of dancers wending quickly over, under and around each other’s extended arms. There is no egress from this cul-de-sac harness of a group embrace.

Glissade-like slides spurred by pulses send the dancers through at least four levels of what a body can do, all to a zither riff that cuts the action back to two dancers. All the while, the audience screams its approval of Neshyba-Hodges and Dibbles’s pairing. The dancers “blow” at a stage light that gives rise to a bonfire, as the lights brighten for a moment and are then extinguished.

A coda of dancers emerges in choreography that can best be described as “bringing cave drawings to life,” as extended flexed arms and feet and cocked heads dance like shadowy river sprites. (We tend to overuse the word “eclectic” to describe what we can’t otherwise give a name to. Ms. Tharp’s piece is truly eclectic in its reach into the literate and preliterate argot of dance, as she shows how work and play were interchangeable once upon a time.)

Men really get to strut their stuff in this work, and the triple tours followed by the counter-manege duet toward the end of the piece, followed by technically perfect barrel turns, bring down the house. The dancing just works and seems to crow: “See, I could dance classical ballet if I wanted to, but I choose to do something in a broader idiom. Hah!”

The choreographer’s Southern imprimatur is left on the evening in the cat’s paw cakewalk finale that rings down the curtain. The audience went temporarily insane over this definitive contribution by Ms. Tharp, and justifiably so!

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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