Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour: New Dances, Old Style

Twyla Tharp and company are two weeks into their 50th anniversary tour, a ten week affair that will eventually finish in New York. Hopefully by then the company, a mix and match blend of freelance ballet dancers and alumni from the casts of her Broadway shows, will have found the unified personality that felt mostly missing in the performances at the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills.  The program includes just two works, “Preludes and Fugues”, a beautifully made suite of ensembles set to a potpourri of reorganized keyboard performances from Bach’s didactic study on the subject, and “Yowzie”,  a gaudy, often tedious, throw away romp set to early American jazz. Each had a prologue or brief fanfare that introduced the dancers. I suppose the idea here was to mark out territory from the two genres where Tharp has spent much of her efforts (concert dance and Broadway), and with two works of equal quality that set up would have well played,  but the glowing humor, wit and emotion of “Preludes and Fugues”  swamps the shallow and mostly pointless razzamatazz of “Yowzie”. You could have wished to have seen much more of the first, and much less of the last.

Even so “Preludes” had its problems. Awkward partnering managed between very tall women and much smaller men produced at times precarious results. Tharp veterans Riko Okamoto and John Selya looked like they were struggling to invest their roles with required physicality while others like Kaitlyn Gilliland, Amy Ruggiero, and Daniel Baker shone with clean technique and physical gusto. Ms. Ruggiero stood apart as the one dancer best suited to all the moods and dance requirements of “Preludes”. But in spite of the unifying music and a safe playbook that ticked through twenty or so of the preludes and fugues the company still looked like they were unsure where to find the work’s center and flow. A couple of poorly managed moments yielded endings that came ahead of the music or presented us with a stage empty of action for too long. At its worst, it looked simply under rehearsed, not ready to stand up against the most memorable of Tharp’s earlier concert pieces, many of which have been done up in exceptional productions by major permanent companies.  The best of it was the way Tharp linked the stand-alone sections and managed natural combinations of varied duos with small and large ensembles. Like Taylor and Balanchine she is a master of moving dancers around while beautifully dovetailing small units into a satisfying whole.

"Yowzie"

“Yowzie”

“Yowzie” for all its boisterousness and good time hijinks is simply not very engaging. At less than half its running time it could be a good production number for an as yet unwritten musical about New Orleans. Maybe picture a bordello or carnival, wacky denizens in a benign underworld of some sort, and you get an idea of where “Yowzie” is headed. But it arrives after the first few minutes and ultimately has nowhere to go for the remainder of what turns out to be a lot of repetitive and labored dancing. Ms. Okamoto kitted up in a feathered head dress stumbles around unconvincingly as a drunken floosy for most of it; there are too many unfunny gay gags, and far too much messy choreography that has no rhyme or reason. Held up to the glare of some of Tharp’s older comedic works you could have wished for almost anything from that long list of dormant dances.  And while the music managed a few different gears in the old jazz idiom–Dixieland, ragtime, and dark bluesy stride piano–the dancing doggedly stuck with an unvarying screwball comedy angle.

(The music was prerecorded. Costumes by Santo Loquasto with lighting by James Ingalls.)

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