Tharp says she has earned the right to create two new dances; and she seems eager to court theatrical danger. "That's the way art is," Tharp says. "It's never finished. It will be ever evolving as long as you continue to do it." So the 50th-Anniversary Tour, which began in Dallas, and snaked around the map visiting Beverly Hills, Chicago, Washington DC, and several other cities. Her group of 13 hand- picked dancers eases into the Big Apple for performances November 17-22, coolly occupying the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where The Joyce Theater Foundation is presenting them.
The New York dance world will celebrate, then, with back slapping and champagne, as it greets one of its grand masters and acknowledges that five decades have passed: half a century of neck-extending opportunities: since Tharp choreographed her first piece. A lot has happened since. Now 74 years old, Tharp has made 129 dances, not counting the Broadway musicals, Hollywood movies and assorted jeux d'esprit. You can read all about it on her website, twylatharp.org. She's concerned with preserving that legacy, and is taking steps to safe-guard it, but nothing beats returning to the studio to create something new.
"Obviously I didn't want to bring out rep for this occasion," Tharp says, as if only a fool would take the safe, well-trodden path. "I figured, 'OK, make the two new pieces,'" she says. "Take the opportunity to challenge myself, and hopefully show work that has progressed."
The new pieces in question, a dance called Preludes and Fugues and another one called Yowzie, partition the evening into diametrically opposing halves. "The two pieces are at extremes of the spectrum," Tharp says. The first dance, set to excerpts from Johann Sebastian Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier responds to the tragedy of 9/11 with a serene faith in providence, affirming the power art has to substitute order for chaos. She describes Preludes and Fugues as "the world as it ought to be."
The alternative, Yowzie, is "the world as it is," a messy free-for- all in which a group of (still lovable) characters over-indulge in the grape and other illicit substances. These hell-raisers quarrel with their partners, allow themselves to be seduced, and wallow in self-pity. Then they run back down the evolutionary ladder, experience holy martyrdom and generally misbehave until they pull themselves together again, all to a swinging jazz score. Tharp selected the music for Yowzie from an album of historic tunes and avant-garde riffs played by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and a band called The Hot 9. The album takes its title from "Fats" Waller's piano piece "Viper's Drag;" and, like Waller, Tharp finds various entendres in the word "drag."
In short, while Preludes and Fugues consoles and ennobles, Yowzie offers intoxicated hiccups along with giggles and nervous titters of self-recognition. Don't forget to inhale. Holding it all together are two fanfares composed by John Zorn, which greet the audience and put viewers on notice that if they want to keep up with Tharp, they'd better stay alert.
But first, the serious stuff. Back in 2001, when those airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, Tharp was in New York City rehearsing. The horror of the terrorist attacks left her reeling, but reaching for balance and thinking of the initials WTC she found a compact-disc recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach's compendium of matched preludes and fugues for keyboard spark with brilliance, and recall the reassuring discipline of a musician's (or a dancer's) daily practice. For Tharp, these beautiful, sanity-saving exercises also embody diversity. As pianists move from one prelude and fugue to the next, they visit all 24 major and minor keys, travelling around the so-called "circle of fifths," a diagram that illustrates pitch relationships. Within this orderly progression, limitless variations are possible; and Bach demonstrates his versatility by composing pieces of varying length and by adopting different styles. For Tharp, Bach's opus is a metaphor for "political coexistence." In this ideal world, we can all get along despite our differences.
Her choreography, while limpid and spare, adds another layer of complexity to this work, since, naturally, her goal is not simply to visualize the music. The dancing in Preludes and Fugues establishes its own set of formal relationships, and makes its own associations. Following a unified duet comes one in which the dancers separate heading right and left. Then comes a scene in which two couples share the space but perform in different styles. Trying to watch both pairs in this ingenious double duet "creates a little chaos for the brain," Tharp says mischievously. A section of daredevil partnering follows an episode in which individuals appear isolated; a trio of women follows a trio of men, and so forth as the choreographer explores a range of options.
Meanwhile, Tharp is busy mining the piece with references she doesn't necessarily expect viewers to catch. Circling patterns, some of which are wild and dangerous, are Tharp's obeisance to the "circle of fifths." In addition to the circles, various kinds of crosses allude to Bach's Lutheran faith. Not only that, Tharp seeds her work with references to great choreographers whom she admires. A scene that "explodes," she says, pays tribute to the late Merce Cunningham and his way of organizing space; while in the women's trio viewers may spot a reference to Martha Graham.
While Preludes and Fugues is preeminently a formal composition, Tharp wouldn't be a master if she didn't break her own rules, just once, to create a dramatic trio in which a man (dancer Ron Todorowski) seems haunted by the specter of death. Yet while Tharp describes 9/11 as "the heart and soul of the matter," Preludes and Fugues doesn't illustrate the events of that day in any obvious way. And while she hopes her work will communicate "faith in continu- ity" and a sense of "spiritual joy," the choreographer acknowledges that even 15 years after the debacle she doesn't expect her ballet to provide closure for herself or for anyone else.
"No," she says. "You will never put it behind you. All I can hope to do is offer the tiniest little glimmer of another way, and of an end-point that could be different from total destruction."
Instead of building a monument to grief, or surrendering to fear and hate-mongering, Tharp has chosen to recall the best that an enlightened humanity is capable of achieving.
Maybe, as The Well-Tempered Clavier implies, we ought to practice more.