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Old (Creative) Habits

At 82, Twyla Tharp shows no signs of slowing down. She brought two world premieres and an all-star revival to the Joyce this week. The newest dances made it clear that although she’s still a dynamo, aging is very much on her mind. She is exploring wistful terrain these days, but she is doing it with her characteristic humor and high step count.  

Performance

Twyla Tharp Dance: “Ocean's Motion,“ “Brel,” and “The Ballet Master”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, February 9, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

John Selya, Cassandra Trenary, and Daniel Ulbricht in “The Ballet Master” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Steven Pisano

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She didn’t play it safe and use her crowd-pleasing oldie, “Ocean’s Motion,” as the show’s anchor. This 1975 work would have been a no-brainer as a closer, with its familiar Chuck Berry soundtrack, onstage bubblegum blowing, conga lines, and hot pink hot pants (the costumes all evening were by Santo Loquasto). But Tharp was right: it was better to show her evolution than to send the audience away on a sugar high. So instead, “Ocean’s Motion” served as a breezy introduction to five of her nine fabulous dancers: Miriam Gittens, Daisy Jacobsen, Skye Mattox, Reed Tankersley, and Jake Tribus.  

Is breezy the right term? They were cavalier in how easily they executed their pirouettes, but they hit their grooves hard. They twisted like Travolta in the gym in Grease, not like Travolta at Jackrabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction. Throughout “Ocean’s Motion,” I was thinking how Tharp often mines the same territory as Jerome Robbins, where social dancing meets ballet. But Robbins did so with a pickaxe where Tharp favors a jackhammer. Robbins demanded naturalness and understatement of his dancers; “easy baby” was his famous coaching refrain. Tharp obviously encourages maximal energy and performativity in her sneaker jives. A decade or so ago, many of Tharp’s dancers took the performativity too far and had a hammy, cloying quality. The current generation is suave; they perfectly toe the line between showmanship and mugging. The captivating Mattox did a particularly good job of looking chill while dancing full throttle. The dancers seemed to have leeway to put their personal stamps on the moves too, which enriched the piece. Tharp employed lots of unison in “Ocean’s Motion,” but there was no uniformity in the dancing. 

Herman Cornejo in “Brel” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Steven Pisano

After a pause, senior American Ballet Theater superstar Herman Cornejo debuted a marathon solo, “Brel,” set to five of Jacques Brel’s classic hits. Cornejo has been a latter-day Baryshnikov for Tharp as well as for ABT, and she converted his charisma and impeccable technique into some showy Francophile brooding here. He was dressed all in black, from his ballet slippers to his tight boatneck shirt. He just needed a beret, suspenders, white gloves and mime makeup. He moped beautifully all around the stage, occasionally flashing his balletic brilliance—a silken swivel turn here, a crisp jeté battu there. The final number, “Marieke,” built to a series of difficult manèges done on the brink of exhaustion. He made grand jeté and revoltade passes back and forth until he waltzed off into the wings in desperation.  

The culminating tricks were all very impressive, naturally, but not as impressive as Cornejo’s ability to sell the rest of it. Tharp had him emoting up a storm. He gathered fistfuls of air and gifted them to the crowd. He paddle-turned with delirium. In “Amsterdam” he interacted with an entire imaginary town—greeting people and even stepping over a body (?) in the street. When he peered into the darkness at the front of the stage it was heavy. Nobody stares into the abyss like Cornejo, though the sad accordion strains probably helped. He’s 42; it was moving to watch him confront his ballet mortality all alone in the spotlight.  

Daniel Ulbricht, Miriam Gittens, and Daisy Jacobson in “The Ballet Master” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Steven Pisano

The second premiere, “The Ballet Master,” was about choreographic mortality, which made it a good companion pieceto“Brel.” Tharp had longtime muse John Selya, charming, stand in for her as an aging dance maker in a chaotic studio setting.The back wall of the Joyce was exposed.Dancers came and went, plopping dance bags about the stage.Selya worked with Tankersley and Tribus while Daniel Ulbricht, in accountant apparel, shoved a clipboard in his face.The music for this opening section was, “BI BA BO” by Simeon ten Holt. It consisted of a bunch of scatting using mostly the “B” sound.It was maddening, like a demented version of Cinderella’s“Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”The syllabic riffing and disordered stage under scored how anarchic and stressful choreographing a new dance can be. Every now and then, Selya’s pressure-cooker rehearsal was interrupted by a serene vision: Cassandra Trenary bourréeing across the stage in a pink gown and veil to operatic snippets. Just when Selya seemed to be at breaking point, the ten Holt number ended with a hiss, as if all the air had been let out of a tire. 

In the second half of this ballet, set to a Vivaldi concerto, Selya entered his daydream. Ulbricht reappeared in trousers and a doublet to help him instead of hinder him. He handed him cheap, plastic knight’s armor instead of a clipboard. After velcroing Selya in, the ersatz Don Quixote and Sancho Panza set out to find Dulcinea. But Trenary was no longer a virginal bourrée queen, she bounded out of the wings in an ivory corset like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Zorro. Tankersley, Tribus, Jacobson, and Gittens reemerged in pirate jammies and flew through their earlier studio stumbling blocks with ease. Then Trenary shapeshifted yet again, crossing the stage in golden spandex and jazz shoes with some funkier—very Tharpian—moves. Ulbricht joined her sartorially and stylistically, and they boogied together until everyone joined in for a final, “tada” pose. Whoa.           

I happened to sit directly behind Tharp in the audience, which made for a truly meta experience. I think “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man”—or woman—would have been a better title. As Selya bobbed and marked the dancing along with his onstage charges, Tharp did the same in her seat—in the same scarf. In fact, she had been doing that throughout the evening. Tharp’s investment was endearing, as was the highly autobiographical “Ballet Master.” This dance was messy and imperfect, but so is the process of making ballets. 

The job requires willfulness as well as expressiveness, a hard shell as well as candor

Tharp has been choreographing for 61 years and it showed. “The Ballet Master” was full of amusingly accurate backstage details. When Tankersley and Tribus had Gittens frozen high overhead while Selya was trying to explain a new toss and catch to her, the concern and doubt on Gittens’s face was hilarious—and so common. Making lifts from scratch is a herky jerky, dangerous business. It is difficult to slowly piece together feats that rely on momentum and gravity. Every time Gittens and the men performed this daring lift fluidly in the second part of “Ballet Master,” it made me chuckle. I also liked how Selya air-squatted in the Thinker pose a few times while the cast swirled around him. All choreographers must center themselves to drown out bustling, untidy rehearsal spaces. Selya kept taking off his cheap armor and putting it back on too, an apt metaphor. The job requires willfulness as well as expressiveness, a hard shell as well as candor. It is emotional tightrope walking. Accordingly, in “The Ballet Master,” Selya displayed frustration and fulfillment in equal measure.  

I bet many choreographers feel like they are tilting at windmills long before their eighties. It is amazing that Tharp persists at the work of shaping the bodies of others to reveal new aspects of herself—bodies which are increasingly younger and spryer than her own. Interestingly, those bodies thrive under her tutelage; Trenary and Ulbricht do some of their finest work in her pieces. I guess we’re all lucky that Tharp keeps grinding away at the choreography thing, she seems to be pretty good at it. 

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

comments

Nancy Lupton

Faye Arthurs is an excellent reviewer – NYT are you reading

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