November 27, 2018
Twyla Tharp has been celebrating fifty-plus years of dancemaking for a few years now, and this fall she is focusing on her early work. In Minimalism and Me, Tharp herself appears onstage to narrate the story of her experiments from the 1965-71. Delivered with wry humor and filmed excerpts, she describes her own “shameless ambition” and the context of the ‘60s downtown experimental arts scene: loft-living in pre-chic Soho among future titans of contemporary art… Barnett Newman… Ellesworth Kelly… as the dancers perform excerpts convincingly and with a wink.
In Tank Dive, Tharp’s first work, a young female dancer stood frozen in a releve in second position (on her toes, legs apart) with her arms in a V, for several minutes. Part of the Tharp’s early research on “what makes a dance dance,” it encapsulated how serious investigation in dance meant reducing and interrogating the limits of both performers and audiences.
But Tharp’s path soon took an early, decisive turn away from these kinds of experiments (“the work was getting tedious”) and in 1971 she created Eight Jelly Rolls for her all female group, to the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Charles Luke. A work that broke ground in its melding of vernacular movement with technical precision, it was unabashedly sexy and slinky, yet full of female empowerment. Performed during the second half of the show, it was strange and disappointing to watch it danced by three men and three women. Although technically brilliant, with so much testosterone onstage it was drained of its original thrill.
The show’s timeline ends right before the well-known moment in 1972-73 when Robert Joffrey gambled on Tharp, giving her an opportunity to work with ballet dancers and create a box office hit, a path she has remained on ever since. The 1960s artistic ferment in New York City continues to provide the basis for so much looking back: MoMA’s current “Judson: The Work is Never Done,” is another example. It makes one wonder, where is that fruitful ferment, free of box office constraints, happening now? Or is it even possible?
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson