“Simply put Preludes and Fugues is the world as it ought to be, Yowzie as it is. The Fanfares celebrate both.”–Twyla Tharp, 2015
Twyla Tharp’s much anticipated 50th Anniversary Tour opened at Zellerbach Hall this weekend. Instead of pulling from her extensive repertoire Tharp decided to create new works. The first act featured a balletic exploration of (many) movements from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” The piece, “Preludes and Fugues,” was preceded by what Tharp called a “Fanfare,” basically a short introduction of the dancers, to quirky, techno-cabaret music by John Zorn. Act Two opened similarly.
From the first moment, “Preludes and Fugues” immediately broadcast Tharp’s iconoclastic brilliance as a choreographer. Nothing is predictable except the dance’s nonstop movement and force. Classic ballet moves are broken at every opportunity with both humor and abrupt altercations of technique. Danced duets and quartets barely have a chance to come together before being blown apart or reconfigured into circles. The dancers, most of whom have danced with Tharp on other projects, are stellar–shinning both in technique and theatricality. In particular, Ron Todorowski impressively takes command of the stage during solos and duets appearing taller than others even though he isn’t. He has the gifts of exquisite length, precise timing combined with an imposing acting style and charisma that he harnesses smartly. Rita Okamoto—Tharp’s doppelganger—is naturally comedic and lithe, taking on a number of complex upside down lifts and crashes to the floor with lyricism and whimsicality.
The six ballerinas– Okamoto, Amy Rugglero, Ramona Kelly, Eva Trapp, Savannah Lowery, and Kaitlyn Gilliland–were costumed in sophisticated, stylized cheerleading outfits that are jewel toned, fitting them handsomely. Their pleated panels flower open and closed in grande jettes and as they are tossed from one male dancer to the next. Together, with their hair pulled neatly back with pearl studded hair combs, they appear like a muted rainbow: raspberry, turquoise, olive green, lavender, gold, and magenta.
By comparison, the seven male dancers–John Selya, Matthew Dibble, Todorowski, Daniel Baker, Nicholas Coppula, Reed Tankersley, and Eric Ottoa– are covered in beige… a color that flatters no one. Their hair tousled, their blousey shirts with bell sleeves are completely contrary to the women’s form-fitting lines. It’s as if they are wearing ballet costumes designed in the 50s.The voluminous gathering of fabric above the waist gives an unnecessary and unflattering girth to them, distorting their forum as their trousers tightly pull and crease at the crotch. Yikes, are they about to rip? If this weren’t unflattering and distracting enough, as they start to sweat, the shirts cling, turning darker in color. The backsides of their trousers, also soaked, become outlined with the imprint of their sacrums and tailbones. Surely this must be the work of some novice designer that doesn’t know better, and not the creation of the award winning Santo Loquasto of film and theater fame!
Fortunately, Loquasto redeems himself and Tharp’s choreography in Act Two with the Second Fanfare, and a second Bay Area premiere, “Yowzie. ” Here, his set and fanciful, psychedelic, vaudevillian costumes drive the dance. The set is an abstract design running the width of the upper stage, a projected pattern of shapes and colors that look like a swatch from one of his tie-dyed costumes. The second fanfare begins with a red backlit scrim that gives the effect of a shadow box as dancers cross in front silhouetted. Their shadows double in length once behind the scrim. When the stage is revealed the dance goes by like a speed train; group montages after solos passing by so quickly and incidentally becoming a blur of color synchronized to the blues of “Fats” Waller and other jazz greats.
The company continues to execute everything spectacularly even though they have to act out slapstick and sophomoric scenarios like guys leaving girls for guys and jealous girls duking it out with each other. With “Yowzie, ” Rita Okamoto plays the same comic relief role as in the first piece, which is now overused and less effective. While it’s great to celebrate Tharp’s one-of-a -kind choreographic vernacular and to witness her impressive company, it’s unlikely that “Yowzie” will endure overtime or be brought back for her 75th.
To read Culture Vulture’s September 2015 interview with Twyla Tharp: