The Magazine

Broadway Ballet

In "Movin' Out," Twyla Tharp creates a dance to the music of time.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By JUDITH GELERNTER
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The dancers in "Movin' Out" are professionally trained in ballet, the most rigorous of dance styles, and several have careers with Twyla Tharp Dance. There are two casts, to save the dancers from exhaustion. Both in technique and in emotion, the Elizabeth Parkinson-Keith Roberts duo for Brenda and Tony is the stronger. A memorable performance is given by Ashley Tuttle as Judy in the scene danced to Joel's song "The Stranger," in which three men who lurk in the shadows lift and toss her about. The light plasticity of Tuttle as the strangers toss her is singular and striking.

After examining Tharp's mature works, you will not be misled by the enthusiastic but aimless prancing of modern avant-garde dance. You will not be over-awed by a masterful but ultimately meaningless routine, or by a dance-maker whose overall aim is for his dancers to look pretty. Aesthetics is significant, but it should not stand without some backbone of logic.

WHY DO SO MANY BALLETS fall short of profundity? Depth comes from the choreographer's process and philosophy as well as innate talent, and the typical choreographic process inhibits visual unity. Most dance-makers create dances by improvising to music and then paring down this raw material to make a ballet. The final product is a rehearsed improvisation with beginning and ending added as afterthought. If the ballet seems to meander in the middle, it is because it was not created to lead to an end. Instead of visual unity, the ballet may be organized according to the structure of the music in a way that may be incomprehensible to the audience. This does not bother most dance-makers because they practice their art from inward-inspired forces, by themselves, for themselves. They consider themselves dancers on par with the company, apart from the audience.

Tharp, by contrast, finds that she can better judge her works when she sits in the audience. The effect is that the work is more understandable. Raw material for a Tharp ballet might be inspired by a photograph or object, by a feeling required by the narrative, by the music's mood or by other people's choreography, for example Michael Jackson's moonwalk by William Marrié as Eddie. (Marrié was recently killed in a motorcycle accident and will be missed.) Although Tharp might spend hundreds of hours improvising raw material for a ballet, she insists that her works have visual unity: a beginning, middle, and end. The result of the choreographic process is that Tharp's ballets may not lean on any particular score. She proves this point in an introductory passage to the televised version of "In The Upper Room" in which she dances the same several-minute sequence to two tunes with entirely different moods.

SHE IS DESCRIBED as a crossover artist for her use of steps from many genres, and she enjoys a palette of steps wider than that used by any of her peers. "Movin' Out" is done in toe shoes and sneakers, on the floor in break-dance acrobatics and in the air with lifts exuberant, lascivious, graceful, whatever is appropriate. All styles coexist naturally within her idiom. Tharp's philosophy and dance-making method allow her to adopt different styles, work independently of music, edit her creations, see her works as one in the audience might see them, and . . . in her quest for classicism, create a narrative tied to human experience in a way which is also universal. Whether in film or theater, on the concert stage or now on Broadway, her greatest ballets will endure.

Twyla Tharp has remarked that many of her ballets were made to solve a particular problem. What she has learned over the course of making more than a hundred dances brings mastery to the art. That is why, in the year 2000, the Dance Heritage Coalition and the Library of Congress elected to honor not any particular one of her works, but rather to honor the choreographer herself among the First 100 of America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.

Judith Gelernter has contributed to the "International Dictionary of Modern Dance," Dance Research Journal, Ballet Review, and "A Core Collection in Dance."