Three Steps Forward, One Back: Twyla Tharp Dance Delivers in the End, But Is Cute on the Way

©David Bazemore

A sold-out Campbell Hall crowd on Friday night got a heady dose of Twyla Tharp’s choreography as her recently regrouped (in 1999) Twyla Tharp Dance performed four works that brought Santa Barbara crowds up to date on Tharp’s most recent work, while delving back briefly for a look at Tharp’s beginnings. For relative newcomers it was a night of contrasts; for longtime aficionados, it was a confirmation of the changes Tharp has brought to modern dance.

The company is a talented, well chosen collection of dancers, all very strong by themselves, and the evening’s program introduced them to us two or three at a time, culminating with almost the entire company participating in the rousing finale. But more of that later.

Setting the tone for the evening was the opening number, “Known By Heart Duet,” a pas de deux set against a bare backdrop with minimal lighting. Dancers Lynda Sing and Matthew Dibble, dressed in utilitarian, silver-gray leotards worked out a battle of the sexes set to rhythmic clanging by Donald Knaack (known as JunkMan for his skill at coaxing full musical works out of refuse). Something was amiss in this budding relationship-together the couple play-acted aggression with smiles on their faces, alone on stage for their respective solos they burst into ego-driven showmanship. Ah, such are modern couples, Tharp seemed to saying, needing companionship, but afraid and unable to give up their freedom.

“The Fugue” gave the audience a chance to see the world of Tharp back in her early, stridently modern phase. Three dancers–Whitney Simler, Jason McDole, and Dario Vaccaro–in button-down casual dress performed a slow motion ballet of pure gravity and heavy footfalls. Looking like escaped models from a J. Crew Autumn Fashion catalog, the trio took apart the concept of syncopation and reduced steps down to a blocky, jarring succession of 4/4 stomps, whirling and shifting between each inevitable fall. The title gives away the interaction of the three, though it was not apparent who was extrapolating on whom. Only the echoes of the feet accompanied the dance, the mood of the piece was like the rude architecture of abandoned office block, the dancers clutching onto humanity.

So the transition between that work and “Westerly Round” couldn’t have been more dramatic. With the swirling, faux-Appalachian Spring vigor of Mark O’Connor’s “Call of the Mockingbird,” the stage brightened with the entrance of one young woman (Emily Coates) and her three suitors (Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Jason McDole, and Dario Vaccaro, the latter two barely winded from the intense previous piece). “Westerly Round” was sunny where “Fugue” was overcast, but the light became a bit too bright. The four dancers impressed all with their athleticism, grace, and joyous energy, but the ego of the earlier “Duet” came back threefold, with a bit too many cutesy asides to the audience, nods and winks and shrugs and a general knowingness that wore out its welcome. Humor was to be had in the fact that the battling suitors seemed more interested in each other after a while than their pursued love, but the point was belabored.

With “Surfer at the River Styx,” another recent piece, the company returned after the intermission full force. Backed by an incredible, dense score by JunkMan, sounding like Harry Partch meets Max Roach at a drum circle, the work alluded to Euripides’ “The Bacchae.” The combination of classical dread and pop cultural nonchalance matched perfectly, with casually attired Neshyba Hodges and Matthew Dibble playing Bacchus and Pentheus, and four other dancers, clad in black, as the Bacchanals, who have come to rip the latter apart. The dancing is as unrelenting as the score, with a section of endless spins from the two leads, whirlpools that draw the mortals down to their doom. The Bacchanals claw and attack these men, sometimes randomly, sometimes in unison.

Yet from this tempest of fear, Tharp ends “Styx” with a gentle coda, scored by David Kahne, with the entire cast now dressed in white, and former Bacchanal Lynda Sing carried aloft over the waters. “Styx” was gripping, controlled chaos that demanded much more of the audience than the entirety of the first half, yet was anything but cerebral.

In the lesser pieces, Tharp feels the need to telegraph emotion, possibly a habit she has picked up from her more commercial forays-though her work on such film projects as “Hair” and “White Knights” is not to be discounted-it’s the moments when she leaves it up to us to decide are the most enthralling.

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