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Style Surfing 

By Mae G. Banner

Twyla Tharp Dance
The Egg, Feb. 15

From her first big splash, Deuce Coupe, made in 1973 for the Joffrey Ballet, Twyla Tharp has continued to dazzle audiences with hybrid choreography that’s all over the movement map.

Tharp set Deuce Coupe to songs by the Beach Boys. Since then, she’s made slouchy, satiny dances to the music of Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Sinatra, while with the other hand (other leg?), she’s set her dancers spinning on point to Brahms, Haydn, and Mozart.

That singular eclecticism kept the audience on their toes at the Egg last Saturday, when six dancers from Twyla Tharp Dance, her current company formed in 1999, performed a stunningly varied program that veered from the folk courtesies of Westerly Round (2001), set to melodious fiddle music by Mark O’Connor, to the wrenching Surfer at the River Styx (2000), a percussive 30-minute memorial dedicated to his wife by composer Donald Knaack (The Junkman) and scored for found objects.

In between, the ballet-trained, modern-dance-savvy ensemble did Even the King, a romantic ballroom vignette set to Johann Strauss’s Kaiserwalzer with dreamy costumes by Santo Loquasto.

Though they differed completely in mood, the dances shared Tharp’s uncanny skill at pulling off quick changes in how the dancers move. She’s got them kaleidoscoping from swift pirouettes to hit-the-floor breakdance feats, from wide-legged modern knee bends to square-dance reels. None of this reads as showing off. Rather, the choreography fits and even advances the music and is in perfect context.

Tharp often refers respectfully to her many dance influences. Westerly Round plays adventuresome Emily Coates (formerly with New York City Ballet and White Oak Dance Project) against Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Jason McDole and Dario Vaccaro as a trio of cowboys eager to impress the woman. Echoes of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo abound as the four cavort to O’Connor’s Copland-like score.

There’s a lovely sequence when the dancers step out, testing the territory, then fall back just enough to gain purchase for the next foray. Coates lifts her legs in amazing extensions that subside into simple skips. The men do solo demonstrations of their prowess and also mime roping and riding moves.

Westerly Round is a beautifully realized dance that fits the sustained spirit of the music like a custom-made saddle.

Matthew Dibble, a former principal with the Royal Ballet of Britain, portrayed the lonely king searching for love in the hushed ballroom setting of Even the King. This was the most balletic dance on the program. Dibble danced with wit and a sinewy attack, while his erstwhile partners, Coates in royal blue and Lynda Sing in purple, rose on point to graceful arabesques that melted into swirling waltzes.

But Tharp breaks the symmetry of classical ballet, disporting her dancers everywhere on the stage. Each individual or couple is doing something interesting, yet each is always part of a pleasing, constantly changing composition.

The evening’s major work was Surfer at the River Styx, in which the tireless Neshyba-Hodges danced the lead. Short and chunky, he’s a monster turner and an acrobatic breakdancer. Tharp uses his talents to full effect, capitalizing on his ability to isolate body parts in sudden pops and locks.

Neshyba-Hodges slides, leaps, does split jumps, jump turns and barrel turns, and boomerangs around the stage in counterpoint to Greek-chorus-like moves by shadowy trios of dancers. All this is driven by Knaack’s all-percussion score, which employs bells, chimes, and clacks and roars that might have been made by Venetian blinds and power mowers.

Eye-popping multiple turns by Neshyba-Hodges and Dibble would likely draw distracting applause if they were set within a ballet. Not here. The audience understood that these were not tricks, but part of the percussive thrust of the dance. Even the lighting changed percussively.

In the final sequence, an homage to Balanchine’s Serenade and his The Unanswered Question, Sing rises and is lifted high overhead by all four men, who slowly, solemnly carry her off under a heavenly light.

 


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