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Absurdism

Twyla Tharp's newest evening-length work, “How Long Blues,” is absurd. In under an hour, it depicts jazz clubs and soccer games, giant marionettes, a string of affairs, an avalanche, and a suicide, all without any particular reasoning. The piece, which opened the lower Manhattan park and venue Little Island's new festival, draws from the work and life of Albert Camus, adhering to the author's understanding that, “the world in itself is not reasonable.”

Performance

Twyla Tharp: “How Long Blues”

Place

Little Island, New York, NY, June 18, 2024

Words

Cecilia Whalen

Twyla Tharp's “How Long Blues.” Photograph by Nina Westervelt

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For Camus, an acceptance of this Absurdity of life is merely the beginning. A recognition of The Absurd is the first step in a wider search for consciousness and clarity, one that ultimately leads to “three consequences: my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.” “How Long Blues” is full of Camus-ian allusions, but drifts closer to confusion rather than to clarity.

“How Long Blues” centers two leads—the former ABT, Broadway, and longtime Tharp performer, John Selya, and Tony and Grammy Award-winning Michael Cerveris. Selya wears a cool, khaki trench coat and is, presumably, the hero and anti-hero, perhaps Camus, himself.

Cerveris starts the show reading Le Figaro while a lone, hooded trumpet player busks behind him. A score by T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield is performed live by a band who mainly hover above the stage on a balcony, but sometimes meander down onstage (not long after the trumpet player leaves, a piano and player are carried onstage by a tricycle).

The first literary allusion comes from The Fall, Camus's novel about witnessing a suicide. Selya and Cerveris sit down at a café as multiple waiters and waitresses rush through to serve them. Evidently, Selya's character has a relationship with one particular waitress. They fight, then she climbs a bridge and jumps off.

Twyla Tharp's “How Long Blues.” Photograph by Nina Westervelt

A chorus of dancers fill the stage, rolling on the floor in splits. As always, Tharp's ensemble of dancers were technically and energetically outstanding.

Death, in a straw headdress and costume covered in skulls (Santo Loquasto did the many costume and scenic designs), comes to claim the fallen. More dancers flood the stage, then giant rocks tumble from the sky. Selya catches one and briefly carries it on his back, an allusion to “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Selya and the chorus transition into a nightclub, where Selya runs through women like hotcakes. Selya dances a sultry duet with each, inevitably concluding with a furious exit by each woman.

Finally, one relationship sticks. Selya falls in love, and the couple share a passionate slow dance. Soon, however, in an allusion to “The Plague,” the woman explodes into a coughing fit. She slips down Selya's side and withers away as the band eases into the New Orleans funerary blues, “St. James Infirmary.” 

This moment is portrayed comically, with Selya flinching every time his love starts hacking away. It is, however, another example of Camus's Absurd: After a string of failed relationships, Selya finally finds “the one.” As soon as he finds her, she catches tuberculosis and dies. 

Twyla Tharp's “How Long Blues.” Photograph by Nina Westervelt

“The Plague” depicts the fictional horrors of an incurable epidemic which sweeps through a city. Although the book is generally devastating, Camus offers moments of relief where, amidst overwhelming death, the characters feel alive.

In one, the lead characters decide to take a swim in the ocean. They describe the sun's warmth, the beauty of the water, and their friendship. Exiting the water, “neither said a word, but they were conscious of being perfectly at one, and the memory of this night would be cherished by them both.”

In “The Plague,” because the swimming scene comes in such stark contrast to a narrative of unrelenting suffering, it is an incredibly touching moment, one that is noble. “How Long Blues” depicts similar moments where dancers enjoy respite from chaos and play soccer, for example, kicking a literal ball around the stage, but because the piece primarily maintains a comedic tone and changes so rapidly from scene to scene, it is hard to recognize the same kind of dramatic contrast or the same kind of nobility.

Overall, “How Long Blues,” with its numerous oversized costumes and sets, and rapid-changing pace—both in music and in dance—emerges as kind of a Camus-ian comic book. Absurdities flash by in big letters, but never slow down long enough, subtly enough, for the audience to ponder Camus's most urgent and serious question: what now?  

There is one stand-out moment, however, where “How Long Blues” offers a moment of reflection, a chance at consciousness. 

Lights dim into shadows and the dancers enter in long white gowns. They spin slowly in place as a black and white zebra print glows over them. Their spinning doesn't intensify but lingers, and ululations—cries—echo from above. It is the piece's most meditative, most arresting, most abstract moment, and yet its most clear.

It evoked the following passage from Camus's essay, “An Absurd Reasoning:”

If the mind must encounter a night let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid—polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence.

At that degree, equivalence encounters passionate understanding.

Cecilia Whalen


Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.

comments

Rachel Howard

As someone previously obsessed with Camus’s writing, I want to thank you for drawing on your knowledge of that writing and going deep in this review. I appreciated it. Your clear evocation of both Camus’s work and Tharp’s was grounding.

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