Twyla Tharp: 'Each one of the dances is my hope for a perfect world'
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Twyla Tharp: 'Each one of the dances is my hope for a perfect world'
Zoe Liebold, left, and Savannah Kristch, part of an ensemble of six dancers ages 14 to 21 that Twyla Tharp found on the internet, during rehearsal at City Center in New York, Nov. 5, 2021. In “Twyla Now,” the prolific and groundbreaking choreographer, now 80, has created a program of works featuring ballet stars and a youthful ensemble that merges the past with the present. Victor Llorente/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- During the pandemic, Twyla Tharp did what most choreographers did: She worked on Zoom. A lot. “The whole time, I was wondering, well, when are we actually going to put bodies back into real places at real times?” she said in a recent interview. “And it was not possible until relatively very recently.”

She wasn’t referring to bubbles, she said, but to the flood of performances that have made this fall season feel almost as robust as any other. But even before anyone could have predicted that, she was determined to put on a show. And so at 80, Tharp used what she had: a milestone birthday.

“We leveraged my age into an evening,” she said, laughing. “You know, I have no shame. Whatever it takes. That’s what I did. Nothing new there.”

What is new is the program she has created. Although Tharp has presented evenings of work over the past few years, none have felt as poignant and sharp, as charming and as wise in their blending of past and present, as “Twyla Now,” which she will unveil at New York City Center beginning Wednesday. It’s the right dances, the right dancers, the right time.

The cast includes members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, along with six ensemble dancers, ages 14-21, who represent the future to Tharp — as all young dancers do. She found them on the internet.

When Savannah Kristich, a competition dancer and the youngest, received an email from Tharp out of the blue, she basically packed her bag right then and there. “She’s a living legend,” said Kristich, who lives in Las Vegas. “She changed dance history.”

Kristich, wild yet precise, has a Tharpian bent to her dancing. She likes to feel free. She knows that a lot of younger dancers worry about what they look like to others when they’re moving; not her. “I do what I think is fitting me, and she’s a huge inspiration on that,” Kristich said of Tharp.

The younger cast join the professionals in the program’s last dance, “All In,” a premiere set to Brahms, in which moments from the show’s previous works — three duets — float in and out like slivers of phantom choreography. Phrases from the past mingle with those from the present in a feat of structural counterpoint.

It’s a Tharp signature, but it’s also her way of saying the past and the present are equal entities. “I’d be sort of bare in a way just trying to start out anew,” she said, “without referencing, without using the foundation that I already have.”

For the program, Tharp starts with works she already has — sort of. The first of the three is the most straightforward: the lively “Cornbread,” a 2014 duet, danced by Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia of New York City Ballet and set to music by string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. It’s a virtuosic display of daring speed and glittering musicality.

“Everybody’s going to go, 'She’s crazy,'” Tharp said. “That was the end, wasn’t it? When do we open with the end? What do you do next?”

The answer comes in a pair of dances that revive vintage choreography in fresh ways. For the new “Second Duet,” danced by James Gilmer and Jacquelin Harris of Ailey, Tharp unearthed improvisations she performed with Kevin O’Day in 1991 when she was devoted to weight training.

Set to music by Thomas Larcher, “Second Duet” requires superhuman strength and trust: a display of lifts and dips that the dancers seem to be inventing on the spot. In overhead balances, the woman, far from passive, relies on the strength in her upper back to hold her weight. You see the effort and the struggle, but there’s also something else at play.

For Tharp, after the elite athleticism of “Cornbread,” the new dance “shows what it takes to be a human,” she said. “Trying to identify yourself in relation to another person is what this whole duet is about — and is, in fact, what all duets are about.”

Gilmer and Harris have spent months learning the movement from archival footage. It begins as something of a battle and becomes more playful over time — but also more vulnerable as the dancers continue their conversation through falling and catching, support and control — tenants of modern dance. “It’s tearing down walls and taking off layers to be your most honest self,” Harris said.

“Pergolesi” is a different sort of experiment. For it, Tharp has taken a duet that she choreographed for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1992, and set it on Robbie Fairchild, a former City Ballet principal and Tony-nominated lead for the Broadway musical “An American in Paris,” and Sara Mearns, a City Ballet principal known for stretching herself far beyond ballet. (During the program, Mearns performs in jazz shoes, pointe shoes and ballet slippers — an athletic tour de force, says Tharp.)

There are twists. One is that they are learning the dance — which was never performed exactly the same way — from a video of one specific performance. The other is that Fairchild will be dancing Tharp’s part while Mearns takes on Baryshnikov’s.

“It’s the return of the ghosts, right?” Tharp said at a recent rehearsal while surveying Fairchild and Mearns.

At first, the prospect of becoming one of those ghosts — Baryshnikov — was daunting to Mearns. “I was like, what?” she said. “There’s no way I can do that. Let’s just be honest here. Nobody can be Misha. Nobody. He is one in a lifetime. But then again, you know me: I’m never going to say no.”

In the duet — competitive, playful, arduous — the two dancers never touch. “It is androgynous in a way,” Mearns said. “When you watch the performance video, it’s not male, female. It’s two insanely independent human beings doing their thing.”

She doesn’t look at Tharp when she studies the video, only Baryshnikov, whose “abundance of strength was unlike any other,” she said. “He was so grounded and nothing was ever off. It was like he was straight on all the time. There was no wavering back and forth, or arms flying around. And it was hard for him to not be on it. My favorite place to be is off” — that is, she likes to fall away from a balance, to turn a seemingly fixed position into a motion.

For his part, Fairchild feels kinship with Tharp. As he put it, “We’re in the ballet world, but we like to jazz it up.”

In the duet, he senses his physicality changing as soon as he begins to dance; shrinking his torso, he tries to become her. “It’s fun to also think about who she is — as a trailblazer, as a female choreographer in a world of men,” Fairchild said. “It’s this little firecracker who was just out to stick it to the man, dancing next to the greatest ballet dancer of all time. The world that she created for herself was hard-earned.”

“Pergolesi” is painstaking work. In one solo, Fairchild performs Tharp’s improvised version of what she just watched Baryshnikov dance; in another, Mearns references roles from Baryshnikov’s classical repertory, and that expands the gender experiment even further: Here, she’s not only dancing a man’s part, she’s dancing male parts from the classical ballet canon.

It can get confusing. During a rehearsal, Fairchild was stuck. “What are we saying here?” he asked Tharp about a lower-than-usual energy moment.

“We’re saying stall,” she said. “The guy’s exhausted.”

The guy is Mearns — meaning Baryshnikov. At this point, he’s dead. “You come in and you actually have the tiniest tad of compassion. Very small! But you have a tiny touch of compassion here.”

Mearns howled with laughter. She loves how in the dance, Tharp — now Fairchild — has the last say. “I finish and I think she’s going to finish, but then she keeps going,” Mearns said later. “I think it’s just so her, right? She’s like, this is my dance, I made this.”

While demonstrating another view of partnering — in many ways, the program is a study of that, too — “Pergolesi” is part of a bigger picture: the diversity that exists within Tharp’s vision. “You work your way back and forth between all of these disparities: racial diversity, sexual diversity, gender, stylistic, and you get to a common point,” she said. “And that, to me, has always been a big part of what the dances do. They are a societal statement of possibility, of inclusion.”

How do we understand and see things? When many different styles of dance live together on a stage — Tharp was the first choreographer to make a crossover ballet, mixing ballet with modern dance — what is created? That boils down to her message of the evening and what she has been trying to say from the start, when in the 1970s she worked intimately with a group of women of varying sizes and shapes, with different dance backgrounds and from different cultures.

“It’s all about community,” she said. “Each one of the dances is my hope for a perfect world where people can actually correspond, communicate, grow together, work together, respect together. And the more diversity, the broader the spectrum, the happier the world. What else is new here? This is what dance does.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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