Twyla Tharp: 'You Dig Down, You Settle in, You Don't Stop'

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Twyla Tharp: 'You Dig Down, You Settle in, You Don't Stop'
From left: Reed Tankersley, Miriam Gittens, Skye Mattox, Daisy Jacobson and Jake Tribus rehearse Twyla Tharp's "Ocean's Motion" in New York, Feb. 5, 2024. For her latest program at the Joyce Theater, the one-of-a-kind choreographer showcases two new dances, along with a revival of “Ocean’s Motion.” (Julieta Cervantes/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

“OK, is everybody’s gum ready?”

It’s not a question most choreographers ask their dancers before a run-through of a work, but Twyla Tharp has always gone her own way. Her career — Tharp is on the cusp of her 60th year as a dance maker — has displayed breathtaking range, from experimental masterpieces (“The Fugue” from 1970 exists in a class by itself) to Broadway hits. All of the work has this: exquisite technique matched with effortless ease.

But back to the gum. It sets the tone for “Ocean’s Motion,” a 1975 melding of coolness and groove to Chuck Berry songs, in which five dancers, with the air of bored teenagers, loop around one another with flirtatious spins and saunter across the stage in loping, bopping runs. What does the bubble gum they chomp during “Too Pooped to Pop” give them? Insouciance.

“The curtain goes up and it’s like, You’ve got to be kidding,” Tharp, 82, said in an interview. “It’s James Dean, it’s, like, slunk down. It’s cool.”

“Ocean’s Motion” is the vintage opener of Tharp’s latest program at the Joyce Theater, which begins Tuesday and runs through Feb. 25. The program also includes two new works: “Brel,” a male solo of breadth and power set to music by Jacques Brel; and “The Ballet Master” to music by Simeon ten Holt and Antonio Vivaldi, in which Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Dulcinea make an appearance by way of performers John Selya, Daniel Ulbricht and Cassandra Trenary.

In a way, the dances can be seen as portraits: “Ocean’s Motion” focuses on teenagers, spilling over with youthful daring. At the same time, they are a little contrived, a little self-conscious. “They’ve examined, How many stitches are in this buttonhole?” Tharp said. “Just by accident, the collar is popped. It’s that kind of cool.”

In “Brel,” performed alternately by Herman Cornejo and Ulbricht — veteran principals at American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet — Tharp explores the idea of a hero in the experienced body of a virtuosic dancer, no longer young yet armed with a different kind of vibrancy. As Tharp told Cornejo at a recent rehearsal: “You’re not going to push through your body. If it’s there, it’s there. Let it grow through your body.”

For a solo, it’s long and brimming with big dancing — powerful, almost frenzied jumps that swing from one side of the stage to the other — as well as a poignant walking passage with steps knitted together so intricately it seems like the feet are gliding. Set to five of Brel’s songs, including “Ne me quitte pas” and “Marieke,” the solo has been gestating for years. Tharp began creating it for Cornejo before the pandemic.

“This ballet should have been premiered five years ago,” she said. “But I’m glad that it didn’t because he’s really grown into it.”

And the choreography allows for starkly different interpretations: Ulbricht’s precise, understated phrasing gives it a sparkling clarity, while Cornejo plays into its casual grandeur. “It’s almost like I don’t have anything to prove anymore,” Cornejo said, “so it’s that kind of abandon and not going 100% like I used to. It goes with this character. It’s very internal. Even though it’s about Brel, I use my own life. And I go through things that I lived. And so my character is me.”

Brel’s persuasive, passionate voice, like Berry’s in “Ocean’s Motion,” is more than a sound. It’s what the dancing leans into and, in a sense, attempts to get inside. “I’ve always been very interested in covering singers who wear their heart on their sleeve,” Tharp said, “who are shameless and who kick the harmony up an extra gear and who just are relentless for going at their audience, really, by the throat.”

Tharp, who has made dances to Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, and created a musical, “Movin’ Out,” set to Billy Joel, also likes that Brel was Belgian of Flemish descent. She sees him as an outsider who contrasted a sense of distance with over-the-top emotionalism, a willingness, she said, “to go for the inner curl of the gut.”

This echoes Tharp’s approach: Nonchalance mixed with vivid, visceral power. “The Ballet Master,” her other premiere, centers on the choreographic process. The first part shows the struggle it entails, to vocal music by minimalist Dutch composer ten Holt (“Bi-Ba-Bo”); the second, illustrates artistic breakthrough — beauty and harmony by way of Vivaldi (Concerto per la SolennitÓ di San Lorenzo). When a rehearsal falls apart, the ballet master (Selya) — at first frustrated — has a vision and is transformed into Don Quixote.

“You’re going to run up against walls, run up against frustrations,” Tharp said. “You’re tempted to quit, but you don’t. You keep plowing through it. You need to have a fresh vision.”

Trenary, a principal at American Ballet Theater, loosely embodies three characters, starting with the Dulcinea figure. “It’s this sort of imagined, fantasy waiflike creature,” Trenary said. “And then you have this shift, which is women sort of catching on to, How can we use this to our advantage in a way?”

Here, Trenary becomes vivacious, unapologetic and flirtatious. Finally, in the end, she is empowered because she has stopped playing games. By this point, she’s also traded pointe shoes for sneakers — golden ones — that allow her to move with the finesse of an athlete and the silken ease of a dancer. Trenary’s transformation — from a light, ephemeral being skimming the floor on pointe to a strong, independent woman dancing on her own in sneakers — is part of the story.

“In a pointe shoe, you have to be really careful about how far forward you’re taking weight,” Tharp said. “You’re not driving out into space in a pair of pointe shoes.”

With the freedom that sneakers afford, Tharp continued: “She’s no longer the inspiration for this thing. She’s the driving force.”

“Ocean’s Motion” was made after Tharp choreographed “Deuce Coupe,” a work recognized as the first crossover ballet. It featured both modern dance and ballet and was set to the Beach Boys. “I was figuring out, yeah, OK, all right, I didn’t get to be a teenager,” she said, “but here I am making dances.”

Tharp’s childhood was packed with lessons — ballet, baton, violin. “By the time I was 8, leisure, if it ever came, produced only dread,” she wrote in her autobiography. “So I make a few dances about the teenager that I wasn’t ever really. I get to be that even though I never got to be that.”

If “Brel” showcases the dignity and fragility of the experienced dancer as a hero, “The Ballet Master” is about perseverance. “You dig in, you dig down, you settle in,” Tharp said, “and you don’t stop.”

The business of dance, as she put it, “is a crazy, crazy pursuit. But on the other hand, who’s showing human courage like this? When dancers are as demanding and precise as I need them to be in ‘Ocean’s Motion,’ when they’re laying it on the line in ‘Brel’ and in the Vivaldi, it’s about human courage.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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