Two Twyla Tharp dances reanimate the classical with the new
New York — Thirteen years separate the creation of Twyla Tharp's first all-ballet ballet (for the Joffrey) and her latest classical piece, ``Ballare.'' Now that she has acquired several new classically trained dancers in her own company, she was able to show the earlier piece, ``As Time Goes By'' (Haydn), during her February season at Brooklyn Academy of Music. On both ends of this continuum, we can see in operation Tharp's remarkable ability to keep reanimating her movement style with new elements. Popular dance, vaudeville, aerobics, and martial arts have all filtered into her original modern dance vocabulary at various times, and, since ``As Time Goes By,'' the ballet language has been an increasingly fruitful resource. ``Ballare'' shows her working confidently but still not complacently with it.
``Ballare'' is formed like a classical ballet - tightly designed in space and very presentational throughout - except it's constantly on the move. As she did much earlier in respect to body movement, Tharp now hustles groups of people through conveniently static positions. The audience can still grasp the scheme, but we aren't given time to savor or lock into it. So, without sacrificing the visual pleasure associated with ballet composition, ``Ballare'' emphasizes change, surprise, dynamism.
The dance does open with a symmetrical pose - four women and two men arranged graciously as in some Balanchinian drawing room. (The music is Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448.) Following the musical sections, fast, slow, faster, the piece is pure dancing without any other program. The opening setup, with each man about to partner two women, immediately shifts when a fourth woman enters, and from then on it's a game to see how they'll sort themselves out. There's not a settled moment until just before the coda, when three women and three men come to a halt, all facing in different directions.
The issue throughout the ballet is how seven dancers can orient themselves formally but unpredictably within a given space, and, as the curtain falls on the fourth woman entering and hailing the others who've just assembled into three couples, they seem to have reached only a temporary resolution.
Within the workings of their game we've also seen them in tiny but personal solos and in various duet and ensemble combinations. They look smart, witty, and kinetically charged, both the Tharp veterans William Whitener and Richard Colton and newcomers Kevin Santee, Stephanie Foster, Cheryl Jones, Catherine Oppenheimer, and Ellen Troy.
Because she keeps the patterning of ``Ballare'' in motion all the time, Tharp seems to be reinventing the staple devices of classicism. Dancers orient themselves so the audience can see them to advantage, but they never line up and face directly front. Instead, they address each other obliquely, giving the audience a three-dimensional view of their bodies rather than a head-on prospect. The diagonal is Tharp's preferred path through the space, too, and all the groupings and gestures seem more lively than when laid out in flat balletic planes.
There isn't an extensive use of pointe work in ``Ballare.'' There isn't time. But the women use their pointes to accentuate vertical jumps and to achieve precarious balances in mid-run. There are several brief duets, some distinguished by a casual egalitarianism, as the man and woman echo each other's steps regardless of how those steps have previously been gender-defined. In ballet duets, lifts are often stigmatized nowadays as signifying male supremacy and female dependency. Tharp deconstructs even this image by propelling the dancers so fast we can only admire the agility and daring - decorative vanity doesn't enter our minds.
Tharp has learned a lot about ballet since 1973, and ``As Time Goes By'' as presently revived looks clearer and less hilarious than it did originally. But it also looks different from ``Ballare,'' less visibly satisfying and more intense, with its small close-to-the-body rhythms and its multiplicity of events layered on top of one another. But neither one of these extraordinary pieces could at any time have been composed by anyone else.