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Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on August 8, 2016

Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour
“Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie”
November 11-14, 2015
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater

DEMO: Time
Curated by Damian Woetzel

November 15, 2015
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in Twyla Tharp's "Yowzie"

Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto in Twyla Tharp’s “Yowzie”

Twyla Tharp was everywhere during the fall 2015 season. On the occasion of her 50th year as a choreographer her 13-member company set out on a 17-city tour — stopping in Berkeley, Austin, New Orleans, Chicago, Bloomington, Ind., to name a few, before finishing up at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., and New York’s Lincoln Center. She was interviewed on radio, featured on TV, blogged in The New York Times, and made the cover of Dance Magazine.

Now 74, Tharp didn’t look back to mark her five choreographic decades by pulling out a retrospective. No revival of “Push Comes To Shove” or “The Catherine Wheel.” No look at historic pieces like “Fugue” or “Eight Jelly Rolls.” No resurfacing of her iconic pop culture pieces “Deuce Coupe,” her Beach Boys ballet, or “Sinatra Suite.” Her Broadway work — the less successful “Singin’ in the Rain” or hits like “Movin’ Out” and “Come Fly Away” — and groundbreaking choreography for television were also passed over.

Instead, Tharp looked ahead, crafting a pair of new works, which, she said, paid homage to some of her forebears — those she has named include Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, and those notably absent, like Paul Taylor, in whose company she danced briefly after college in 1963.

A poster child for post-modernism’s adage “everything counts,” Tharp long ago reeled herself in to craft viable, even popularly loved, choreography for the ballet, modern and theater worlds, making a name for herself. But she still gets her way with her post-modernist roots in merging ballet and Bach, bebop, jazz, pop and ballroom, sharing and intermingling across concert dance styles and genres. The duet of dances she made for this 50th anniversary tour is, ultimately, as much an homage to her own tenacity, creative drive and choreographic signature as it is to those dance icons she publicly acknowledged. In light of the occasion — 50 years of creative output in the oft-unforgiving dance field — Tharp created a pair of fanfares, prologues of sorts, to open each half of the program. These little pieces d’occasion bleed into the full works — Twyla keeping the audience guessing.

Each half of the program was heralded with trumpets, composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet Society). “First Fanfare” featured dancers dashing across the stage, the men in gold-toned slacks and shirts; the women, in demure ballet skirts, leap and are caught. Momentarily Tharp fans flash back to the spectacular and indelible ballroom catches of “Sinatra Suite.” The same energetic busy-ness that is a Tharp trademark in pieces like “In the Upper Room” and “Surfer at the River Styx” fills the stage as the fanfare blends into “Preludes and Fugues,” with its staunch settings to Bach. But, the choreography is anything but. Tharp dissects the music, inserting into the metronomic and fugue patterns jazzy runs, lovely ballroom dips, a polka, some Broadway slides and, even a little balletic batterie of supremely precise footwork. Once again she proves to be master of all concert dance styles and her perspicacious eye has culled a group of gorgeous dancers who can ease into a slouchy slide and prick out a chain of pique turns with equal finesse.

The physical jokes in play include gamesmanship with size, pitting the “too tall” girl with the shorter partner, or lining up the petite dancer with company compatriot who towers head and shoulders above her. It’s gimmicky, not trail-blazing, but, like many Tharpian fillips, it works. Tharp’s 1970 work “The Fugue” dissected the musical form with mathematical precision. That trio is described as “a 20-count theme which is developed into 20 variations. The theme is modified through a number of reversals, inversions, retrogrades and repetitions, re-sequencing and rhythmic manipulations.” Tharp’s return to the Bach fugue today is not nearly as stoic, though I’m sure another look would not call it less structured, but her new fugue has an open danceable feeling contained within its musical structure rather than her more rigid approach in “The Fugue.” The dancers, and audience, revel in the aura of the music, and the choreographic surprises: little hiccoughs of quick stepping patter, a couple of jovial shoves here or there, a silly walk or two, some highly technical Balanchinian moments, and some easier on the eye, though no less challenging, nods to Robbins. As the piece winds its way to closure, a growing sense of collegiality builds as Tharp brings the dancers together, their  paths converging, small duos and trios melding into larger ensembles. Tharp knows how to hold an audience and here she does it with that most succinct and simple of dance forms: the circle. When the dancers converge, Tharp draws that lump-in-the-throat moment — for all the riff-raff and penny ante joviality, the cut ups and the show offs, the Einsteinian musical dissections, in the end, this dance — all dances in Tharp’s world — are about community, bringing the many together as one.

“Yowzie,” dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto, is a more lighthearted romp set to American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Opening with another fanfare, this time the dancers play behind a scrim, showcasing silhouettes, Pilobolus-style, with outlandish headdresses and distinctive clothing cuts. There’s a filmic sensibility to the fanfare, played — or danced — under James Ingalls’ crimson lighting and scrim. This is a rowdier, more easy-going piece, lots of loose limbs, shrugs, chugs and galumphs along with Tharpian incongruities: twos playing off of threes, boy-girl couplings that switch over to boy-boy pairs, and other hi-jinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like New Orleans Second Line. There are comic riffs — dancers walking away with exaggerated slumps, a barker-like figure, a pair that nearly resort to fisticuffs, but then little Rika Okamoto gets the upper hand and — literally – kicks some butt. It’s lighter fare and the ending, parading off in couples, clumps, trios into the wings, is more of a fade-out than a final statement.

Together both works are ultimately Tharp paying tribute to Tharp: “Preludes and Fugues” is her more serious — with a wink — “Push Comes To Shove” piece, while “Yowzie” is her new “Eight Jelly Rolls,” serving up the fun and games of American musical invention. Tharp’s 50th year in choreography can be summed up simply as Tharp doing Tharp.


A still new artistic project, the curated salon-like evenings by retired New York City Ballet principle Damian Woetzel look back to earlier cross-over evenings with music, dance poetry, and more sharing a bill. Director of arts programs at the think tank the Aspen Institute, Woetzel also produces the summer’s Vail International Dance Festival. November 15 at the Kennedy Center’s upstairs Terrace Theater, he brought together a collection of artists from across genres for his latest project: “DEMO: Time.” The event featured dancers Tyler Peck, Robert Fairchild, Bill Irwin, and Carmen De Lavallade, along with poet Elizabeth Alexander, musicians Gabriel Kahane, Colin Jacobsen, Claire Chase, Jacqueline Bolier and Glenn Sales. Woetzel, wearing a suit and wielding a clicker for his PowerPoint slides, served as the lecturer-slash-emcee, providing tidbits, quotable quotes and moderately intellectual patter to introduce his overarching concept — time.

The Terrace Theater proved the right venue for this sold-out Sunday evening — small enough to feel intimate, yet the stage was large enough to not rein in the performers, particularly a quirky opening duet by Peck and Irwin. Titled “Time It Was /116,” the playful work contrasted the broad-brushed clownish physicality of Irwin against Peck’s delicate ballerina. Violinist Jacobsen played a measured Phillip Glass piece as the pair variously copied and compared their indelible movement styles. Irwin, ageless in his baggy pants, bowler and flat shoes, borrows exquisitely from the timeless grace of Chaplin in a free ranging jaunt across the stage. Peck was less daring and more staid – the comedic timing harder for her to grasp, but she eventually got some laughs and enjoyed herself. Comedy isn’t easy, especially physical comedy.

Ageless and grace-filled De Lavallade brought an excerpt from her autobiographical evening-length work “As I Remember It.” She begins with isolations, recounting a physical inventory of her body from wrists to toes, fingers, to backs, moving those parts and undulating in a close fitting leotard and skirt. She stands, hands on hips and remembers. As she does, a film clip of her dancing 40, maybe 50 years ago plays. It’s a rehearsal of John Butler’s choreography for a duet based on “Porgy and Bess.” She recounts her work as a female dancer of color during a time when the world wasn’t accepting of her beauty, grace, talent and skill. She shares a few sacred moments in her life, then remarks, returning to her physical inventory — knees, back, shoulders, “Once I was beautiful. That’s how it goes with us.” Once and always, de Lavallade’s beauty in body and spirit remains untarnished, even with age. Time, indeed, stood still for her.

The program closed with a Balanchine-Stravinsky duet, and it became clear that time was its essence. “Duo Concertant,” originally created for Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins in 1972, was dance by Fairchild and Peck and after an evening of song, poetry, music and dance exploring facets of time, “Duo Concertant” felt fresh and timeless. Pianist Glenn Sales released into the knotty score at first while the dancers stood, listening, before taking up the music. And there it was, time, as Fairchild behind Peck, her arm outstretched like the minute hand on a clock, tick away at the receding moments of time. The rest of the duet was beautifully danced, Fairchild especially making the stage feel too small as he swallowed space. Peck more delicate, but no less accurate in her accounting. Time refreshed, enlivened, became a moment to savor in an evening that came together with mixed but mostly fruitful results.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the print-only magazine Ballet Review. What? You don’t subscribe? Visit Ballet Review.


Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on November 8, 2010

“Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance”
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
November 2, 2010

“Fare Well: The End of the World As We Know It OR Dancing Your Way to Paradise!”
Maida Withers Dance Construction Company
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
November 7, 2010

By Lisa Traiger
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger

“We need more women presidents, like in Brazil,” declares the forceful, smoky voiced Germaine Acogny as she marches down the aisle of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. “Yes we can! Yes we can!” she chants in her butter-melting French accent, a black feather boa glamorously tossed over her shoulders, her shaved head shining. The Senegalese dancer, making and teaching movement since 1968, is a stunner: tall, lanky, arms that reach on forever and beyond, legs as solid as tree trunks. She walks accessing the full power of her pelvis, not with a thrust, or a bump and grind, but a simple, direct foot stamping or caressing the ground, as necessary. Later on stage, an internal whir stirs her hips with fulsome relish. But Acogny’s dance is not one that takes mere pleasure in her physical instrument: it’s a call to action, a political demonstration, and, taking place on election eve, it’s a call for woman spirit and woman strength to topple what has become the power of the status quo. Joined by video of traffic and slashes of rain and finally a tree in the moonlight, “Songbook Yaakaar” or “Facing up to Hope,” as the piece is called, is a demand for a change of course.

But Acogny’s cry for more women presidents in a dance-centric crowd — and the “Fly” program, devoted only to women dancer/choreographers — can also be heard as a call for more fearless women choreographers. We know modern dance’s history, birthed a century ago by powerful, independent women. Yet today the form suffers not only from a lack of funding, but an absence of prominent female leaders. Of late, the field lacks powerhouse women who are creative forces –- where are our Martha Grahams, Doris Humphreys, Anna Sokolows, Katherine Dunhams? With our founding and even second generations gone, our next cohort of women dance matriarchs has not attained the same power, status, prestige and notoriety these earlier women garnered. So much so, that Dance magazine editor Wendy Perron was concerned enough by the lack of prominent women’s voices in the modern dance field to keep a running tally of women choreographers. The accolades, alas, these days seem to go to the Marks, Bills, Joes and Stephens of modern dance. That makes this program — five women, five dances, five distinctive voices — all the more necessary, even in 2010.

In “Fly” we have the prescription, if not a cure, for this issue of under-recognized female modern dance role models. The five African-American women of “Fly: Five First Ladies” are not merely notable female choreographers, but “women of a certain age” –- all 60 or older — who continue to assert a powerful stage presence. There’s Bebe Miller, 60 this year, reprising her 1989 solo “Rain,” a juicy evocation of earth and spirit, danced before and upon a grassy rectangle of sod. Clad in a deep red velvet dress on the green grass of an otherwise bare stage, Miller’s spare and intentional movements — a swinging arm, a hand reaching backward, a deep, chewy plie, nuzzling and burrowing into the ground — are accompanied initially by a sparely minimalist score by Hearn Gadbois, then the piece blossoms with Heitor Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5. Part priestess, part contented nature lover, Miller attends and attunes to earth, air, sky and, the title, rain, through her subtle but not inconsequential gestures.

From 1972, “The Creation,” a solo richly spoken and danced by Carmen de Lavallade, too, draws on ideas of earthly grandeur and creative spiritual forces. In this case, using poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of the Biblical creation myth from “God’s Trombones.” The piece is a dramatic and forceful rendering of other worldly forces and grace, exquisitely performed by a ravishing de Lavallade. Draped in a red gown, her chin lifted and gaze direct, her fingers caress and conjure the still air around her as if ordering up the heavens and earth from whole cloth. In “If You Didn’t Know,” wiry but steel-girded Dianne McIntyre’s solo features jazz inflections, poetry and an audio montage of late filmmaker St. Clair Bourne speaking on the challenges of being a black artist. Tiny, but muscular, draped in a white full-length tunic and skirt, McIntyre offers up her own posturing, leveling the jazz notes with a flutter of her arm, puncturing a well-directed point with a fist, standing in defiance as Gwendolyn Nelson-Fleming sings on tape and pianist George Caldwell winds his way through a song called “If You Don’t Know Me.” It’s both a hot and cool performance, regal yet testy, even impatient in the flings, and leg swoops that bubble and swish around her skirt. McIntyre still has a hold over her audience, and still makes work that matters in pointed ways.

Finally, in tandem with Acogny’s political defiance, Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s “Bring ‘em Home” offers a rejoinder, equally political and personal. Pumping music by Rebirth Brass Band romps and rolls as Zollar lays crumpled, raising a white handkerchief in surrender. But stoically she rises, rolls back her velvety shoulders and catches the beat. Second lining, Zollar calls her performance, and it reflects the down, but not nearly out, status of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, injecting its rich music and dance culture into her solo. Main line paraders who walk among the first string of bands in a funeral or other procession are, in New Orleans fashion, typically followed by a second line. These amateurs and hangers on are not without skill, as they join the parade to twirl parasols, wave handkerchiefs and march to their own jovial beat. Zollar, too, honors these second liners who made up the most damaged wards of the washed out but not drowned city. With her simple and unaffected steps, she manages to make a statement about dispossession and racism, especially in her vocal call to “Bring ‘em home.” As she marches off, one arm rises, a signifier of praise and defiance.


Washington has its own grande dame of modern and post-modern dance: 74-year-old Maida Withers, who founded her Dance Construction Company in 1974. Continuing to make and tour new works, Withers, still a professor at George Washington University, brought her current piece, the excessively titled “Fare Well -– The End of the World As We Know It OR Dance Your Way To Paradise!” to Washington after touring to New York, Kenya, Utah and Brazil. A lengthy solo featuring Steven Hilmy’s electronic sound score performed live, as well as poems by David McAleavey and Alex Caldiero, the work is an unrestrained call to action. Never one to shy away from hot-button issues, here Withers, swathed in a white tunic over bright red undergarments, her shock of matching white hair, becomes Gaia, a literal mother earth, a crone warning all to heed the environmental chaos. The video backdrop by Ayodamola Okunseinde features a moving landscape of dried earth, cracked ice, mountains, deserts, smoke and fire, along with wildlife. First carrying an empty water jug, Withers, still lanky and fearless, engulfs the Dance Place black box stage. She’s all sharp elbows, wide lunges, expansive low leaps and crashes to the ground. At one point from a stooped position, she arises to a tremor, fists vibrating as drums beat a warning. At another, her jaw drops open, face contorted in a silent scream. Withers remains tireless and “Fare Well” proves to be her tour de force. The quietly introspective trio, “Naked Truth” followed, danced by broad-chested but gentle partner Anthony Gongora, quirky, quick-footed Tzveta Kassabova and petite, gazelle-like Giselle Ruzany. This first performance beats with a lifeforce, especially in the wake of Withers’ urgent admonition: “What do I know about … children … dwindling rivers … deserts … groundwater used up …?” There’s more zest and ease to “Naked Truth” with its restful, friendly partnerships intertwining and separating then re-alligning. It serves as an apt anecdote, following Withers’ razor-sharp screed.

Photo Maida Withers in “Fare Well” by Ayo Okunseinde
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger