Outer Limits

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 Surfer with 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.


On the Westside, the new head of UCLA Performing Arts, David Sefton, is also shaking things up. Not content to wait until the 2001-2002 season to unveil his programming vision, Sefton slipped in the ambitious five-hour folk-music marathon Hal Wilner’s Harry Smith Project in April, and now, as a post-season apéritif, is bringing the hot young Vancouver, B.C.–based group the Holy Body Tattoo to town next week.

I mean hot in two ways: The Holy Body Tattoo has been getting rave reviews for its brand of relentless head-banging, thrash-burn-and-die choreography everywhere it’s performed, and the dancers work in a “they make me hot” sort of way. I’m not (yet) too old to get off on — er, appreciate — the driving industrial rock score by Jean-Yves Thériault (a.k.a. Blackie of the 1980s Canadian heavy-metal band Vovoid), or identify with the trio of anonymous everypeople lashing out at unseen forces and throwing themselves violently and repeatedly on the ground in the video I previewed.

For the Holy Body Tattoo, pushing the body to extremes is part of a larger investigation of endurance, effort and deterioration that addresses, paradoxically, the tenuousness of the human condition as well as our tenacious will to survive. To date, co–artistic directors and choreographers Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras have made a total of three pieces since coming together as the Holy Body Tattoo in 1993, all of which are evening-length, multimedia events produced in collaboration with a range of artists. For the piece they will perform at UCLA, our brief eternity (1996), the two are joined by dancer Susan Elliott, and a barrage of visual and aural stimuli has been created out of film, slides and video, with original text by Christopher Halcrow and science-fiction writer William Gibson woven into Thériault’s original score and flashed onto the stage in four languages — all of which assaults the audience, making them work just like the dancers. Ultimately, Gingras said by phone, the piece is a bloodletting, a communal purge: “We can’t escape our mortality, even though technology is pushing us into the illusion that we can. We don’t have the luxury to be conceptual artists in this age. Our goal is to bring it back to the flesh, to ask what does it mean to be a body.”

Speaking from his home in Vancouver, Gagnon told me that performing the piece is like opening a sore: “Once you enter that world, there’s no turning back. It’s a world of no return. It’s actually a great Zen meditation, because if you hold on to your mind, you’ll fall behind, and if you miss one beat, you’re lost.” Gingras concurred, calling the experience “unforgiving.” The piece took the duo nine months to create, then another six months of rehearsal to get it down. Nevertheless, after five years of performing the piece around the world, the two find themselves constantly tweaking it, digging deeper inside to find the human motivation. “Otherwise,” Gagnon insists, “it just becomes aerobics from hell.”

As the title our brief eternity implies, Gagnon and Gingras like to explore the fuzzy gray area betwixt opposites: effort and vulnerability, endurance and surrender, moving forward and losing ground. In Poetry and Apocalypse (1994), the pair landed in a chaotic unstable world where they could find no purchase, save to hold on to each other. In our brief eternity, the trio of dancers is caught in a punishing cycle of perpetual motion, repeating and accumulating movement at an increasing pace until the body becomes a machine, helpless to do anything but go on. A grueling meditation on the hubris of human progress and willpower, the piece physically translates the question “How far can we go as a society?” into “How much can the body endure?” As the momentum builds and the dancers devolve from the superhuman to the abject, the answer seems to be: until there is nothing left.

TWYLA THARP DANCE | Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center | 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Thursday–Saturday, June 21–23, 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 24, 3 p.m.

OUR BRIEF ETERNITY | The Holy Body Tattoo | UCLA, Freud Playhouse, 405 Hilgard Ave. | Wednesday–Saturday, June 20–23, 8:30 p.m.

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