The world needs an action hero. Enter Twyla Tharp (and Camus).
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The world needs an action hero. Enter Twyla Tharp (and Camus).
Twyla Tharp at her home in New York, Oct. 14, 2019. Tharp, whose new work is a full-length dance-and-musical hybrid at Little Island’s outdoor amphitheater. “This piece is about action,” she said. “It’s about an action hero.” (Cole Barash/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas



NEW YORK, NY.- Last year, Twyla Tharp immersed herself in the work of French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, namely “The Plague.” World events were on her mind, and his 1947 novel about a pandemic in Algeria struck a chord. In her new full-length work, an outdoor dance-and-musical hybrid, “How Long Blues,” named after a Leroy Carr song, Tharp finds inspiration in that writing and also in American jazz.

With original music and arrangements by T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, the work opens the revamped summer festival at Little Island in Manhattan and its theater overlooking the Hudson River. It reminds Tharp a little of performing at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 1971, when she presented the premiere of “Eight Jelly Rolls.” A couple of performances “had puddles onstage,” she said. “We were not above dancing with wet feet in those days.”

What about these days?

“They’ve changed,” she said.

The Delacorte was, she said, her group’s first proscenium experience in New York. But the Little Island stage, while also outdoors, is not that. Tharp, who directed, choreographed and conceived “How Long Blues,” which runs June 1 through 23, regards the proscenium as a wonderful thing. “A stage is an incredible invention where you can have real control,” she said. “You can focus to the quarter of a centimeter. When you’re working in one of these site-specific situations, you have to deal with God’s reality, not your own.”

Her reality, though, is to produce a shimmering experience of movement and music. “How Long Blues,” a melding of dance and theater with scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto, features a cast that includes Tony Award-winning actor Michael Cerveris, along with a group of vivid dancers with varied training — some Tharp regulars, including John Selya and Reed Tankersley, and some newcomers. Jazz singer Andromeda Turre will perform with the band.

When creating “How Long Blues,” Tharp said she started thinking: “Where are we? Who are we? What’s relevant for all of us?” The coronavirus pandemic affected everyone, she continued. “What does that leave us all to deal with? It’s reconstruction time. It still is. We still have not recovered from the pandemic.”

And now, with everything happening in the world, there’s even more at stake. “My usual subject matter is unity,” Tharp said. “Freedom is a good one also. However, at this moment in time, it seemed to me that resiliency was the commodity that we were looking to anchor ourselves in order to keep going.”

Tharp, a force at 82, always seems to know how to keep it going. Or, as she put it, “I keep working because I keep learning.”

What follows are edited excerpts from a recent interview.

Q: Why did you want to present a work at Little Island?

A: My first five years [as a choreographer] were site specific. So when I saw the space, it actually reminded me of a small theater space outside someplace on the East Side [where we performed] during that period of time. I said, Gee, this would be a different kind of same thing. It’s an extraordinary space. It is not a theater, which we’re attempting to create here. But it is like an event. That thing is over water in Manhattan halfway to New Jersey. You have the stars overhead.

Q: What did you get out of that early time?

A: The capacity to put up a show anywhere, any time. With anything and with nothing. So you know you can do that, and that’s a good foundation to launch from.

Q: What can you tell me about your subject matter for this new work?

A: What is important here is resiliency, both in terms of who Camus was, but also in terms of where our culture is right now. I think that all of us personally, and the culture in a bigger way, are trying to find resiliency so we don’t have to say it’s over. And so we can, at the same time, go: Things have got to change.

Q: And what about Camus?

A: The notion of him being tubercular and knowing it from the time he was [a teenager] until he passed away was a thing that he had to confront on a daily basis. Look, we’re all going to die. I’m going to die. Why don’t I just kill myself now and get it over with? He was very brave, very smart, and had a really strong sense of humor, which amounted to a huge degree of vitality in combination with the fact that the guy was a doer. He was active, he was an athlete.

Q: What kind?

A: He wanted to be a professional soccer player. That was not possible because of the tuberculosis, but the passion for the physicality carried through his entire life. He continued to be a devotee. And one of the more meaningful, for me, remarks came out of an interview late in his life when — and I quote this not verbatim — he said that the only place he found real justice in human behavior was in soccer. In soccer and in physical endeavors, you can’t be corrupt. You have to be honest.

That had a big impact on my wanting to center a piece on a figure who was both very resilient and an active force.

Q: What do you want the music to tell?

A: Well, first of all, the music is the tale. In jazz, a tune is resilient. A tune has the fortitude, it has the ability to be manipulated a thousand, a million different ways. “How Long Blues,” for example, is Leroy Carr. But the rendition that we use is Count Basie’s take. It’s how Basie heard the song. In a way it’s about truth.

Q: How do you mean?

A: Something can be valid in a different way, a very long time later. Basie was a boogie guy in the ’40s, and he just kept evolving and finding alternative ways of doing something. American jazz has given millions of folks the ability to be both grounded and to reach out and to explore. Your responsibility is to do it your way.

Q: And the song “My Way” is in this work, too, which is linked to your dances to Frank Sinatra.

A: I have a lot of history with a lot of this music. But “My Way,” apart from all the Sinatra references, seems a very perfect kind of statement about the existentialist’s dilemma. Let’s do it my way, and see what happens? “My Way,” I always think, evolves into more than just the me.

I happened to come upon a clip of a horn player who was in the streets in this black hoodie playing “My Way” as people passed him by with no regard for him whatsoever, none, totally unnoticed. He was playing, basically, his heart out.

Q: That’s how the show starts. What does it mean?

A: It connects Camus and “The Stranger” and the other and the outsider and the observer. We’re seeing it happening. And that’s the thing about Little Island: It’s an event space in a way. More than a show being put on, you could go there anytime during the day and see things happen. I like the idea of starting the show with something that you, the observer, just could see happening anywhere on the street.

Q: What is the role of dance in this piece?

A: This piece is about action. It’s about an action hero. It’s about a guy who wanted to be an athlete and got thrown into the world of the mind instead and found a way to exist there, but did it through the sensory experiences that he knew physically.

So from the get-go, you just take the action from this life and you say, OK, we’re going to walk because that’s something he did. We’re going to do all the movement that’s involved in playing soccer. It becomes taking action and extending that into dance rather than trying to stuff dancing into a narrative.

Q: This is a different way of telling a narrative?

A: The dancing has to come through the action rather than vice versa. So in other words, if you think of Jerry [Robbins], you think of “West Side Story.” The action comes through the dancing. The dancing is the action. I’m doing the opposite.

Q: Is this a way of highlighting the everyday mover, the way we all move?

A: I would call it an ongoing concern to “move” the audience, to allow them to feel, to help them feel they, too, could be up there. What we are doing is an illusion of the commonplace.

Q: What is it like being the first person out of the gate at Little Island?

A: It’s kind of a frontier. I like a frontier, I’m happy with a frontier. I’d much rather have that than a played-out area.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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