By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Rolline Laporte
I have to agree with onetime Village Voice dance critic Jill Johnston, who said of Twyla Tharp, “This girl is no drooping daisy.” Johnston made the comment back in the ’60s, shortly after Tharp quit dancing with Paul Taylor to found her own “downtown” postmodern company, Twyla Tharp Dance — the latest incarnation of which will have its Los Angeles debut at the Ahmanson in a couple of weeks. But although it bears the name of Tharp’s original company — the one she maintained until 1988, the one everyone loved — the current company is a chamber-size ensemble consisting of primarily classically trained ballet dancers.
This new troupe may be a bird of a different color, but word has it that it’s a beautiful bird. Since its resurrection last summer, it has received only glowing reviews. At the beginning of the year, around the same time the company was being feted for its New York debut, it was announced that Tharp would move the fledgling group into the refurbished hall of a Civil War–era church a few blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, start a school, quadruple the size of the company over the next three years until it resembled something akin to a Brooklyn Ballet — all part of a 10-year, $560 million plan to transform the Fort Greene neighborhood into a cultural district. The consensus was that Tharp was back, big and bold as ever.
Not that she ever went away completely. Tharp has spent the last decade as a free agent, creating large-scale ballets for just about every major international ballet company — the only ones that can afford her rates and proffer a big enough canvas for her to create on. Citing financial concerns, Tharp pulled out of the Brooklyn deal last month, much to the surprise of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Local Development Corporation, which had committed to spending $500,000 for renovations of the proposed new home as part of a five-year lease agreement. To be frank, the plan was a little grand, and premature, considering the new company is less than a year old. Tharp promises this one will be an ongoing enterprise — not like the pickup company put together for a national tour that she brought through town five years ago. For anyone who remembers the original company — the daring and abandon of the likes of Rose Marie Wright, Sara Rudner and Shelley Washington — the distinction is important. Tharp is known for her devotion to her dancers, and has likened these past 12 years to being in exile, without the grounding and invigorating force of her own troupe.
“I’ve always said I can only do as much as my dancers can do. And this group is amazing, absolutely capable of what we call crossing over — they’re equally authentic on either side of the modern-ballet line. They are the dancers I set out to develop with Deuce Coupe,” she said by telephone a few months ago, referring to the ballet Robert Joffrey commissioned in 1973. Deuce Coupe was a watershed moment in Tharp’s career. Conflating the conventions of ballet with those of pop culture (she set the ballet to a suite of Beach Boys tunes and had graffiti artists tagging the back wall of the theater during the performance), the dance was the hit of the season, and Tharp suddenly was a hot item. While some factions debated notions of aesthetic purity and others wondered whether she had sold her avant-garde credentials, Tharp continued generating popular hits by combining the danse d’école with an insouciant mix of idioms — jazz, tap, modern, disco boogie, pedestrian, you name it. Over the years this eclecticism has composted down into a rich loam of nonchalant bravura, reflecting Tharp’s predilection for speed, complexity and rigorous athletic partnering, all set within intricate, almost mathematically precise choreographic structures.
“It’s true,” she confessed. “It’s always been my belief that dance is about the physical body, that the dancer is an athlete. When I began working, it was always about how high could I jump, how fast could I run, how complex could the convolutions of the feet be.” This drive to push at and exceed the limits of physical possibility hasn’t abated over the years. If anything, as evident in her upcoming programs at the Ahmanson, Tharp is pushing harder than ever. In Surfer at the River Styx, a nonstop version of The Bacchae by Euripides set to an original score by percussionist-composer Donald “The Junkman” Knaack, the men stop being dancers, Tharp admitted, and become warriors. “And,” she said, “the Hammerklavier is even more monumental.” For the current tour, Tharp has expanded the 1999 quartet into a piece for the entire ensemble, now clocking in at 48 minutes. Tharp restored a section of the score in order to use Beethoven’s entire Grosse Sonata Opus 106, which features one of the most difficult fugues ever written (to be played live by virtuoso pianist Nikolai Demidenko). The four-night run at the Ahmanson features two different programs, the first of which, on Thursday and Friday, pairs the dark and allegorical Surferwith the more playful Mozart Clarinet Quintet K. 581. In addition to the Hammerklavier, the Saturday and Sunday shows include Known by Heart Duet, also with music by Knaack, and Westerly Round, a world premiere Tharp has choreographed especially for L.A. No drooping daisy, indeed.