Twyla Tharp

October 4, 2008

I attend dance performances about as frequently as I go to roller derby.  Last night I attended the Twyla Tharp performance at Pacific Northwest Ballet with some friends who truly enjoy dance and would attend dance performances as frequently as I go to Mariners games if the opportunity were here.

I was prepared to have a nice evening, but was nearly awestruck by the performance of the three Tharp pieces, two of which were world premiers and the third a familiar favorite to dance buffs.  Each piece was a highly evocative fusion of elements, some of which were even discernible by me, seamlessly blended to create in me a sense of anticipation throughout the performance.  Elegant balletic movement, folk dance, Chaplinesque  near slapstick,  ballroom dance, gymnastic athleticism, sweeping Romantic gesture, then the abject collapse of all movement.  Not only were all these dance and movement elements merged into the work but the pieces themselves seemed a blend of dance and theater, silent movies, and the images of memory and imagination.

I won’t stray too far into a territory unknown to me.  But great art awakens something in the viewer, an awareness of the richness and possibility of life.  I had that kind of aesthetic experience last night.

Of the three pieces, I was most drawn to the second, called “Afternoon Ball.”  Before I get into that I should say that the first piece was performed to a Brahms quartet, Opus 111. I was struck by the synchrony between the movement and the music, each accenting and complimenting the other.  It was easy to imagine the dancers as the imaginary figures you sometimes see when you close your eyes to listen to music.  The dark underlayment of Brahms contributed to a sense of profundity.

The music for the second piece, the one that particularly struck me, was  composed by a contemporary Russian, Vladimir Martynov, “Autumn Ball of the Elves” (1994).  The first movement was the stark minimalist sound that for me might accompany work by Beckett.   The music builds to attain in the later stages of the work almost an echo of the Brahms piece.

In a very interesting, but slow starting, interview by an overwhelmed reporter from the Stranger Tharp called the piece “existentialist theater . . . the end of the world.”  It conveys a sense of alienation and despair but at its conclusion a brief but strong sense of hope or redemption.  I think this piece resonated for me because I’ve recently been preoccupied with King Lear, the utterly nihilistic work that according to Harold Bloom marked the beginning of western consciousness.

That Stranger interview is one in which you vividly feel the interviewer’s pain and discomfort, as Tharp protects her private mental and emotional life from intrusion.  The interviewer is not prepared to discuss with her her work, so is forced to ask rather broad questions and virtually begs her to jump in and participate, which she grudgingly does.

Toward the end she comments that the decline of art critics in the published media is a very good thing.  She views critics, not as intermediaries promoting quality art to the population, but as obstacles between the artist and the audience.

She then starts interviewing the interviewer and asks him why he does it.  He responds by saying that there is something profound in art that makes it the province of philosophers, citing Aristotle, Nietzsche and Heidegger, among others.  Tharp then says that she thinks of her work as pre-Socratic.  After some brief discussion back and forth she says “turn that thing off so we can have a serious talk” and the tape is instantly over.

Tharp thinking of herself as pre-Socratic fascinates me.  (What I would give to have heard the ensuing talk.)  She likes to think of herself as coming form a time before Plato had inflicted a sense of rigid and perfect system of ideal “things,” which became the gnostic notion that the ideal, true reality, is someplace else and our lives a spent with shadows within a cave.  Aristotle of course was able to lay a rigid system of taxonomy and categorization on this dim world of shadows so that everything had a place.  Then he imposed a system of logic to enable us to trudge among the categories.  Tharp sees herself as before all that when the world was full of mystery, explained by myth and metaphor.