By Marcia B. Siegel
Dressed in cream-colored pants, a crisp white shirt, sneakers, and big owlish spectacles with red plastic frames, Twyla Tharp played the professor in the first part of the 90-minute show.
Twyla Tharp — Minimalism and Me presented by Summer Stages Dance and the Institute of Contemporary Art. At the ICA, Boston, MA, December 13 through 16.
Minimalism and Me, an extruded lecture-demonstration in the form of a concert, brought Twyla Tharp back to Boston with a group of five dancers, 13 local supers, films, slides, and audience participation. Dressed in cream-colored pants, a crisp white shirt, sneakers, and big owlish spectacles with red plastic frames, Tharp played the professor in the first part of the 90-minute show. She delivered a strategically edited review of her earliest works (1965 to 1970), and alluded to the bigger art world of abstract expressionism, minimalism, postmodern dance, post-postmodern dance, and contemporary dance, all or some of which she may have been a part of. Throughout the evening, the professional dancers of Tharp’s present company performed bits of old dances, and the local volunteers impersonated her audiences.
Soon after graduating from Barnard and spending a year or so in Paul Taylor’s company, Tharp made Tank Dive for a small theater at Hunter College. At the ICA Friday night dancer Kellie Drobnick emulated Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man, balancing on half-toe with arms outstretched for the duration of Petula Clark’s popular record “Downtown,” while some of the extras sat in chairs to simulate a restless audience for that event.
Tharp didn’t mention that Drobnick’s balancing act was only one of four or five actions in the tiny dance. She didn’t offer her definition of minimalism either, but after Tank Dive and a walking-in-straight-lines dance called Stride, which was made as a film and never performed for the public, she built her choreography on an ever-more-dancerly arrangement of pedestrian steps and actions. She initially took the role of reductionist—as in using the smallest possible element of anything—but I would hardly call her a minimalist.
After Tank Dive according to the lecture, Tharp showed Re-Moves at Judson Church, where much of the avant-garde dance had originated. She might have staged Re-Moves in order to get the attention of the Press, at that time personified by Clive Barnes, the dance critic of the New York Times. This she engineered by assigning him a particular seat. The choreography was to take her behind his chair so she could scramble over his shoulders and into his lap. This feat got less roughly re-enacted at the ICA, and Tharp narrated other parts of that dance, with token live reminders, such as Drobnick walking by with one foot bare and one in a sock, and a scrim dropping to hide the dancers from the audience. She didn’t mention the part where she dropped eggs on the floor.
I didn’t see this, Tharp’s one and only Judson Church concert, but I caught up with her work a couple of coups later. I certainly saw the Billy Rose Theater performance on Broadway in 1969, and the one after that, when, for her first appearance at the Brooklyn Academy Opera House, she put the audience on the stage with the dancers. I saw Medley outdoors at Connecticut College in 1969, but not the one in New York’s Central Park, which she called “the world’s first flash mob.”
Marking The History of Up and Down (1971) at Oberlin College, she stuffed a pillow under Matthew Dibble’s shirt to imitate her pregnant self. She’d filmed her expanding body at home, but she wasn’t giving up dancing. Films of her and the company’s mass teaching event at the Oberlin gym were projected; I could hardly focus on the live dancers who were recapturing it because the old films were so fascinating.
Tharp followed the gym event, and freaked out her sponsors and audience at Oberlin, with an unwatchable collage of lights, sound, and movement that she blamed on a computer. I’d heard about this fiasco but hadn’t seen any part of it. So the scraps of film that documented it were enlightening. As were the films from the massive museum event of 1970-71. Dancing in the Streets of Paris and London, Continued in Stockholm and Sometimes Madrid started out at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. I saw it with amazement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
I was already a big fan in 1970 when The Fugue had its first performance, at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It didn’t get its definitive premiere until the next year, same place, on a program with the fabulous jazz piece Eight Jelly Rolls.
For the Fugue in ’71, Tharp, Sara Rudner, and Rose Marie Wright wore tight black jackets, black pants in different lengths, and boots. She later staged that intricate piece for three men and it was the men’s costumes that the current Tharp dancers recalled at the ICA. In black shirts and pants with thin brown belts and brown leather shoes, Reed Tankersley, Kara Chen, and Drobnick danced a few of the many variations on a stamping, punching theme. It looked more relaxed and extended than the tight, risky explosions of the original trio. But I’d give a lot to see the whole of it, even in its less rigorous 21st century style.
Tharp’s dancers taught volunteers from the ICA audience five variations from The One Hundreds while she took questions from the rest of the audience on Friday night. This ingenious piece premiered in 1970 at U. Mass Amherst, and survives today in continually evolving form. It combines professionals dancing with pedestrians doing the same moves. (100 phrases of eleven seconds each performed first by two company dancers, then by the company doing 20 phrases each, then by one hundred volunteers each doing one phrase, simultaneously) I tried this in a performance at New York’s Battery Park in 2003. After a tutoring session with company member Charlie Hodges, I thought I knew my phrase but realized I’d better get in the back row. Sure enough, I’d forgotten it by count 3. Nobody noticed.
As smartly orchestrated as the first half of M and M was, in the freeform second half we got the other Tharp, the crusty, funny, brilliant Tharp. She brought out Matt Dibble and Ron Todorowski, who’ve been dancing with her for years, to learn a new dance she would choreograph on the spot. Starting back to back, with Tharp’s instructions and accompanying sound effects (yabayabammffbooo!), they learned impossible, goofy moves and quickly began personalizing them. A few minutes later, Dibble slid to the floor and was tenderly helped up by Todorowski. Linked together for what Tharp explained was to be the finale, they stretched out into a twin, flexed-footed arabesque.
The audience laughed and applauded lovingly. The self-promotion might have been artful, the improv full of flim-flam, but M and M reassured me that feisty 77-year-old Twyla is still at it.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.