Mae G. Banner
Egg, Feb. 15
From her first big splash, Deuce Coupe, made in 1973
for the Joffrey Ballet, Twyla Tharp has continued to dazzle
audiences with hybrid choreography that’s all over the movement
Tharp set Deuce Coupe to songs by the Beach Boys. Since
then, she’s made slouchy, satiny dances to the music of Fats
Waller, Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Sinatra, while with the
other hand (other leg?), she’s set her dancers spinning on
point to Brahms, Haydn, and Mozart.
That singular eclecticism kept the audience on their toes
at the Egg last Saturday, when six dancers from Twyla Tharp
Dance, her current company formed in 1999, performed a stunningly
varied program that veered from the folk courtesies of Westerly
Round (2001), set to melodious fiddle music by Mark O’Connor,
to the wrenching Surfer at the River Styx (2000), a
percussive 30-minute memorial dedicated to his wife by composer
Donald Knaack (The Junkman) and scored for found objects.
In between, the ballet-trained, modern-dance-savvy ensemble
did Even the King, a romantic ballroom vignette set
to Johann Strauss’s Kaiserwalzer with dreamy costumes
by Santo Loquasto.
Though they differed completely in mood, the dances shared
Tharp’s uncanny skill at pulling off quick changes in how
the dancers move. She’s got them kaleidoscoping from swift
pirouettes to hit-the-floor breakdance feats, from wide-legged
modern knee bends to square-dance reels. None of this reads
as showing off. Rather, the choreography fits and even advances
the music and is in perfect context.
Tharp often refers respectfully to her many dance influences.
Westerly Round plays adventuresome Emily Coates (formerly
with New York City Ballet and White Oak Dance Project) against
Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Jason McDole and Dario Vaccaro as
a trio of cowboys eager to impress the woman. Echoes of Agnes
de Mille’s Rodeo abound as the four cavort to O’Connor’s
There’s a lovely sequence when the dancers step out, testing
the territory, then fall back just enough to gain purchase
for the next foray. Coates lifts her legs in amazing extensions
that subside into simple skips. The men do solo demonstrations
of their prowess and also mime roping and riding moves.
Round is a beautifully realized dance that fits the sustained
spirit of the music like a custom-made saddle.
Matthew Dibble, a former principal with the Royal Ballet of
Britain, portrayed the lonely king searching for love in the
hushed ballroom setting of Even the King. This was
the most balletic dance on the program. Dibble danced with
wit and a sinewy attack, while his erstwhile partners, Coates
in royal blue and Lynda Sing in purple, rose on point to graceful
arabesques that melted into swirling waltzes.
But Tharp breaks the symmetry of classical ballet, disporting
her dancers everywhere on the stage. Each individual or couple
is doing something interesting, yet each is always part of
a pleasing, constantly changing composition.
The evening’s major work was Surfer at the River Styx,
in which the tireless Neshyba-Hodges danced the lead. Short
and chunky, he’s a monster turner and an acrobatic breakdancer.
Tharp uses his talents to full effect, capitalizing on his
ability to isolate body parts in sudden pops and locks.
Neshyba-Hodges slides, leaps, does split jumps, jump turns
and barrel turns, and boomerangs around the stage in counterpoint
to Greek-chorus-like moves by shadowy trios of dancers. All
this is driven by Knaack’s all-percussion score, which employs
bells, chimes, and clacks and roars that might have been made
by Venetian blinds and power mowers.
Eye-popping multiple turns by Neshyba-Hodges and Dibble would
likely draw distracting applause if they were set within a
ballet. Not here. The audience understood that these were
not tricks, but part of the percussive thrust of the dance.
Even the lighting changed percussively.
In the final sequence, an homage to Balanchine’s Serenade
and his The Unanswered Question, Sing rises
and is lifted high overhead by all four men, who slowly, solemnly
carry her off under a heavenly light.