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Twyla Tharp at PNB: Two Fabulous World Premieres
By Rosie Gaynor
Posted September 30, 2008


     From where I was sitting in McCaw Hall on opening night (September 25), it looked like the dancers couldn’t wait to have a go at the luscious movement Twyla Tharp has set on them. Pent-up anticipation ready to burst: the dancing starts before the music.  

Twyla Tharp, during her two-month stint at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Principal dancer Carla Körbes (left) and other dancers look on as Tharp works with principal dancer Batkhurel Bold (right). (Photo ©Marc von Borstel)

     If it were football, there would have been an offside flag and a penalty. But it is   Twyla Tharp and I’m guessing she’s not too concerned with any rule book (except for, maybe, her own). Besides which, who in Seattle would be willing to throw a flag at Twyla Tharp? Even Brendan Kiley from The Stranger couldn’t really, not in the end. (His is an excellent preview article, by the way. Check it out.) It seems to me like we’ve got a crush on this pioneering woman who dresses like Seattle, reads like Seattle, and has the discipline, intelligence, and passion to actually reach idealistic goals. 

     The absence of a rule book made the prospect of two Tharp world premieres at PNB in one night particularly inviting. Would the two new works be spastic or sublime? Vapid or dense? Inward-thinking or outward-projecting? A pair—or two disparate pieces?  

     The first, Opus 111, is an energetic, graceful frolic to Brahms’s string quintet. I’m off completely on the dates and styles, but I can’t shake the sense of an 18th-century fête champêtre—especially in the first of the four movements. The work is idyllic, pastoral, and courtly all at once. Tharp shows her mastery with patterns, inventions, and groupings here, and the effect is a harmony of dance. (See in the image below: Jodie Thomas and Lucien Postlewaite are close-but-not-quite mirror images. Pattern with invention, resulting in harmony.)  

Soloist Jodie Thomas and principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite in Opus 111 (Pacific Northwest Ballet. (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

     All twelve of the dancers in this high-energy kaleidoscope piece looked comfortable with Tharp’s idiom. (The piece perfectly suits Thomas, who, for the past few years, has been breaking out of the quick-and-technical-Bluebird-and-Fairy pigeonhole, revealing additional reserves of strength, phrasing, and conviction.) The cast maintains a high level of comfort even when, in the fourth movement, the choreography goes a little kooky, gets a little folky, and brings in some knee-slapping and flexed feet for a fast-paced finale. This roisterous race ends with a commedia dell’arte bow and—from the audience—roaring applause. 

     I can’t wait to go again on Friday to see what I missed the first time around. One step in particular has stayed with me. I can hear it in the music now: Feet in parallel, knees bent, arms swinging back and forth from loose shoulders. Try it. If you were sitting at the edge of a pool on a hot day, swinging your legs in the cool water, splashing, you couldn’t feel happier than that movement.  

     (In answer to the questions above…Opus 111:  Sublime, dense, outward-projecting.) 

     Tharp’s second piece is much darker. Afternoon Ball plays out to a 1994 work by Vladimir Martynov. A far cry from idyllic fête champêtre paintings; it’s more like Munch’s Scream. It is existential theater; it is expressionism on a shadowy, minimalist stage.  

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Kaori Nakamura and guest artist Charlie Neshyba-Hodges in Afternoon Ball. Fabulous costumes by Mark Zappone. (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

     There is play and humor in this ballet, and exciting dance. Also: anguish, angst, alienation, silliness, sexiness. There is definitely a story; I’m just not sure what it is.  

     I was content to merely enjoy the three emotional, high-style, cavorting punks without grasping the story, until a loving, elegant couple (1815-or-so-style dress) waltzed onto the scene. Given this strange juxtaposition, I suddenly really wanted a story. And so I made one up. I realize that stories with themes like “the memory of love can bring peace” are not the point of existentialism. But it turned out (possibly) to be the point of the ballet: in the end, the waltz-woman saves the cold, alienated, lonely punk. He’s dead (I think), but he does not die alone.  

     Guest artist/assistant to the choreographer Charlie Neshyba-Hodges danced the role of the dying punk. His attitude (his? or was it the character’s?) slipped occasionally into glibness and showmanship, but the quality of his movement blew me away. He is grounded but at the same time pulled-up, light when he needs to be, solid but flexible, precise and quick. (I would love to see him in Lambarena or in a duet with PNB’s Benjamin Griffiths, who has some similar qualities.)  

     Kaori Nakamura and Olivier Wevers play his cohorts, the former tarted up and spunky, the latter befuddled and quirky. These consistently effective, detailed-oriented dancers take on their roles without reserve and make the strange movement seem to come naturally. Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov, the waltzing couple, achieve a touching, simple tenderness.   

     (In answer to the questions above… Afternoon Ball: Sublime, dense, inward-thinking. Definitely two disparate pieces.) 

     The third work presented in All Tharp is the popular Nine Sinatra Songs, which premiered up in Vancouver, B.C., in 1982. Instead of the sighed-over chandelier that often graces the last piece of PNB mixed-bill programs, we get a gigantic disco ball. It, too, elicits an appreciative sigh from the audience.  

     The Oscar de la Renta costumes are gorgeous, the movements are beautiful, Frank Sinatra swings, and the whole audience seems to go wild during this piece. Except for me. I see the beauty and the humor and the ingenuity, but I still have never been able to wrap my arms around this piece. I suppose I want a little more ballet mixed in…or if not that, then a little less ballet technique. Ballroom dancing is for fun; being careful with it gives it a preciousness that annoys, well, me. I do truly enjoy two of the nine vignettes, though: the tipsy “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” which captures so very well the pleasure of staying out too late with someone you love; and the edgier “That’s Life.” And, of course, I love that disco ball!   

     All in all, All Tharp made for a fine evening. Missing—and missed!—in action were most of the members of PNB’s corps de ballet. (A few of them are scheduled to appear this week, including the young Frenchman who has been with the company for only a year: Jérôme Tisserand.) I hope Twyla Tharp comes back to us in Seattle. Whether it’s with new works or pieces already in PNB’s rep: she’ll be most welcome! 

     All Tharp runs through October 5. Regular tickets are $25 to $155 at 206-441-2424 or   (Check PNB’s website for student, senior, and group discounts.)


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