info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  

online exclusive


the twyla tharp legacy

jonathan marshall on tharp and the link dance company

As well as writing for RealTime, Dr Jonathan Marshall is a Research Fellow at the WA Academy of Performing Arts

Link Dance Company, The Fugue Link Dance Company, The Fugue
photo Jon Green
THE US HAS A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH TWYLA THARP. IN MANY WAYS QUINTESSENTIALLY AMERICAN, THARP’S CHOREOGRAPHY IS BRASH, ATHLETIC AND YOUTHFUL, AN EXPLOSION OF WIT AND SHOWY ACTIVITY, WHILE HER DRAMATIC CONTENT HAS COVERED 1960s COUNTERCULTURE (HAIR), THE VIETNAM WAR (HER BILLY JOEL MUSICAL, MOVIN’ OUT) AND THE NATION’S RUSTIC RELIGIOUS BASE (THE SHAKER-INSPIRED SWEET FIELDS). NOW 66, THARP IS MAKING CONCERTED EFFORTS TO SECURE HER LEGACY.

2003 saw the publication of Tharp's second monograph, while the first critical biography on the artist appeared in 2006. Tharp has even secured her presence on the somewhat nauseating website, the Academy of Achievement.

This rush of activity was accompanied in 2006 by the spectacular flop of Tharp’s dance-theatre-musical The Times They Are A Changin’, a mawkish setting of Bob Dylan’s lyrics to a circus narrative. Critics hated it so much they gave up all pretence of even-handedness and openly mocked it. It is this oscillation in quality not only Tharp’s work, but more particularly her critical standing, which led one New York Times reviewer to remark that if Tharp “were an automobile, she’d be a 1960s Jaguar: fast, stylish, high profile…and unreliable.”

Despite such setbacks, Tharp wishes to situate herself alongside such key figures in US dance as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Ruth St Denis. Tharp has long called for a “cross-over” dancer who “could genuinely work as comfortably on the so-called modern techniques as on the classical technique.” And she more recently suggested that her own works could act as “scores and pedagogical material” akin to those developed by classical music “composers to produce better musicians."

With this in mind, in 2003 Tharp began to licence her works to teaching institutions. Since 2005, more than eight US colleges have staged Tharp’s pieces, including Sarah Lawrence College, where Tharp’s early collaborator Sarah Rudner works.

Tharp has influenced Australian dance. Lucy Guerin began working in Rudner’s company, while the influential Russell Dumas has worked with both Tharp and Rudner. The Australian Ballet staged Tharp’s popular athletic ballet of 1986, In The Upper Room, several times, its brash combination of energised pedestrian movement (running and jogging) with ballet and the pulsing music of Phillip Glass continued to draw audiences. Interestingly though, the first of Tharp’s early works to be staged in Australia as part of this repositioning are Torelli and The Fugue, performed by the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts' Link Dance Company.

Fugue is a key piece in the canon, originally danced by Tharp, Rudner and Rose Marie Wright. Although austere in presentation, lacking any music beyond the tap-derived stamps of the trio and the silent rhythmic counterpoints of the dance itself, Fugue meshes easily with classicism. It is precise and mathematical, demanding every pose be done just so, and although it has a touch of postmodern pedestrianism in that none of the actual physical phrases or gestures are in themselves all that difficult (arms held horizontal as the body drops into bent legs, slowly, like a perching bird; crossing of the feet to mark out triangles and lines on the floor etc), the speed of the transitions and the intricate ebb and flow of the timing makes for virtuosic performance. Indeed, Fugue has been in the repertoire of the American Ballet Theatre since 1988.

Torelli however is more difficult to fit into any tradition, not least as it has no formal precedent as such. Never performed quite the way Tharp envisaged it, Torelli was to be danced on a barge around Manhattan Island. It ended up being staged only once, in 1971, as an environmental, installed work, performed in a park during sunset, with Tharp et al dressed in everyday winter clothing. The 2005 Marymount College production evoked this unbounded ambience by seating spectators on stage, but the Link Dance Company production was poorly served by the oppressive concrete proscenium arch of WAAPA's theatre.

The process of reinventing Torelli runs the risk of over-formalising it, of turning it into something closer to Tharp’s later works for Broadway than her earlier productions staged in the last years of the Judson Church movement and postmodernism’s arrival on the US dance scene. After executing a set of pedestrian phrases of arm swings, shoulder shakes and so on, the performers begin to improvise on this material, a deep, slow drop into the floor as the legs spread apart being a notable gesture used to not only pace and segment material, but also as an amusing response to fellow dancers.

While the discipline—or more accurately, the deliberate ill-discipline—of learning such a work is pedagogically useful, the piece offers less for audiences. Its theatrical staging does not attain the sense of countercultural fun and radicalism which it once had, coming across as a historical curio. Fugue by contrast offers much in its temporal delights, while the various gender combinations which today’s companies like Link are playing with present many opportunities for lightly enunciated sass and sex. The current costuming—the slacks, black shoes and open-necked white shirt of a classic Broadway hoofer—gives a touch of transvestite subversion. This was particularly true with one of the Link female dancers’ platinum blonde bob evoking that ambiguous goddess herself, Marlene Dietrich. Fugue is brimming with a sexy, presentational “look-at-me!” execution, while the more introspective Torelli does not directly address the audience, and once taken from the park to the stage, this is problematic.

As far as America is concerned, the jury is still out on where to place Tharp. The choreographer’s transition from postmodern rebel to an almost neo-classical populist makes one wary of quite what effects the institutionalisation of her style might have for the opening out or closing off of physical plasticity today. Tharp has even less in common with deliberately formless and resolutely anti-classical approaches like butoh or Body Weather than Merce Cunningham. Nevertheless, Tharp remains a commanding presence in dance, here as well as in the US, and further opportunities to revisit her work, such as provided by Link, are to be welcomed.


Link Dance Company, artistic director Michael Whaites; Torelli (1971), choreographer Twyla Tharp, new costuming Emily Frederickson, lighting Jayne Ottens, performers Helen Duncan, Russell Leonard, Jade Dibblee, Rhiannon Newton, Laura Boynes, Elanor Webber; The Fugue (1968-71), choreographer Twyla Tharp, lighting from design by Charlie Hodges, costume recreation Santo Loquasto, performers Sophie Burgoyne, Luke Hickmott, Chimene Steele-Prior; Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Nov 1-3

As well as writing for RealTime, Dr Jonathan Marshall is a Research Fellow at the WA Academy of Performing Arts

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. online

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to top