THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Colleges Give Tharp's Old Works a Try

By ROBERT GRESKOVIC

New York - In the typically wry narration Twyla Tharp composed for a 1982 video called "Twyla Tharp Scrapbook," which surveyed the first 15 years of her career as a dancemaker, the scrappy-sounding choreographer commented on the brainy side of her early work. Noting the urge to think through and write down the frequently complex plans she and her initially all-female dancers devised for choreography, she identified what she called the "zenith in our note phase."

This was reached during her teaching residency at Oberlin College. There, in January 1971, with help from a computer, Ms. Tharp and her six dancers worked on some intricate movement studies, all duly written down before being structured into a dance presentation. The result was shown once in a campus field house, in the manner of an athletic event, and again in a theater.

'Deuce Coupe' was performed by dancers from the Juilliard School.
The performances, which came and went and were seen no more, involved Oberlin's students and were led by Ms. Tharp, alongside her six devoted dancers. Elsewhere in her "Scrapbook," the choreographer lovingly described her tireless female collaborators as seeing themselves "righteously and rigorously as a bunch of broads doing God's work."

Though she doesn't literally say so in her narration, "repertory, schmepertory" succinctly describes Ms. Tharp's lack of interest in keeping her works around beyond their initial runs. Or at least it did for a good while in her evolving career.

Ms. Tharp, who disbanded her official company in 1988 to work thereafter on a project-to-project basis, was nowhere in evidence herself when the Joyce Theater recently presented a one-off college showcase that offered an all-Tharp program of dances from the 1970s. But a few of the "broads" -- and for good measure a dude or two -- who worked so faithfully with her in the past did have a hand in the happy event.

Barnard College, Hunter College, the Juilliard School, Marymount Manhattan College and Sarah Lawrence College all came together to present the individual Tharp works that figured in their recent spring concerts. The programming, an atypical entry on the Joyce's spring calendar, came about when Ginger Montell, associate director of Twyla Tharp Productions, noted the strong college concentration of Tharp dances in and around New York City this year.

Four works made up the program put on by the Joyce. "The Fugue" (1970) was danced by both Sarah Lawrence and Marymount in differently focused presentations. Originally conceived by Ms. Tharp as a taut trio performed in silence on a stage amplified to resonate with the dancers' footwork, "The Fugue" was shown by Sarah Lawrence as a "Lecture & Demonstration." This way of presenting it dates from the '70s, when Ms. Tharp and company took it on tour. Here it was led by former Tharp dancer Jennifer Way, who worked with the Sarah Lawrence students during the year, when she was assisted by her husband, Tom Rawe, one of the earliest male members of Ms. Tharp's company.

The audience sitting through the workshop-like format in the Joyce was given somewhat more lecture than demonstration. Though Ms. Way confidently put the 10 well-rehearsed students through the tricky timing and variously altered emphases involved in the dance's concentrated movement "phrases," her spiel wasn't especially easy to follow.

By the time three hardworking Marymount women followed with a full performance of the dance, viewing fatigue had set in. And while I strongly prefer seeing women dance this work, so well suited to the female physique, I found a lack of full "Fugue" impact in the fact that they wore the shirts and slacks later designed by Santo Loquasto for Tharp company men. The original costumes, variously shaped black tops and cut-off pants paired with heeled boots (by Kermit Love), remain more striking and more theatrical, especially where percussive footwork is concerned.

The four Hunter students' bright rendering of excerpts from 1976's jaunty "Country Dances" (staged by Stacy Caddell) smartly contrasted with the sameness of the back-to-back "Fugue" segments. The colorful country-style music showed how Ms. Tharp used rhythmic accompaniment to enhance her theatrical dance effects.

Barnard College's complete presentation of 1972's "Eight Jelly Rolls" (staged, full of crucial detail, by Katie Glasner) opened the bill with a bang -- and a slide and a shuffle and a pratfall or two. This eight-part suite represents Ms. Tharp's earliest turn toward music, namely that of Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers. While few subsequent dancers, least of all those drawn from a pool of full-time college students, can be expected to hit all the playful, virtuoso and personal notes that mark this loose and often loopy presentation of jazz-tinged, dapper dancing, these Barnard women managed handsomely.

Special mention should go to long-haired Elena Williams, who took on the sly, sphinxlike moods of Rose Marie Wright's original dancing, as well as to a smooth Tamara Clarke and a witty Renuka Hines, who respectively danced the roles that Sara Rudner and Ms. Tharp herself once made so memorable. Both of these last-named students not only dug into the subtle body-language they were given but also lit up, from inside, the spiritual dimensions of these jazz-trouper personalities.

"Deuce Coupe" (1973, to Beach Boys music arranged by David Horowitz, reconstructed by William Whitener) was presented as the program's suitably bright capstone by the Juilliard students, the most nearly professional of all these college dancers. Sadly, none of the work's pure, ballet-based choreography -- splendidly danced by the school during its spring program in March, when it gave the work in full -- was included in this truncated version.

There are a number reasons why college dance departments find Ms. Tharp's works so neat a fit for their students. The choreography's cerebral side is certainly one; the devotion of former Tharp dancers to their past work and toward passing it on is another. "Deuce Coupe" can be seen as a reason unto itself, in its fertile meshing of ballet and modern dance. Ms. Tharp was often thought to be ahead of her time, and this college concentration on a sampler of her nearly 40-year-old works more than fortifies that assessment.

Mr. Greskovic writes about dance for the Journal.

Published by The Wall Street Journal on May 23, 2007; Page D10