In many ways Twyla Tharp is the quintessential New York City artist. Having begun her career as a “downtown” figure in terms of audience and context, she proceeded to blast through every boundary, conquering Lincoln Center, the movies, television, and Broadway, all without losing her hard-earned reputation for intellectual rigor and fierce iconoclasm. She taught America to love ballet again at a moment when the pivotal advances of George Balanchine began to wane in the popular consciousness. Perhaps most importantly, she opened the vocabulary of classical ballet to the gestures and stances of modern life, incorporating movement from sports, social dance, and the street into what had been a guarded and self-referential domain.
Now, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of her first dance company, Tharp has rejected the sentimental pleasures of a career retrospective in favor of fielding a substantially new company of a dozen dancers in two ambitious new works. The 45-minute “Preludes and Fugues” is a tour de force of choreographic invention set to selections from J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. The darkly comic “Yowzie” uses the rhythms and melodies of early jazz to advance a distinctively humorous aesthetic influenced by silent film and cartoons. Although Tharp has written in her recently launched NYTimes.com blog about how “Preludes and Fugues” incorporates subtle references to such key influences as Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, and Jerome Robbins, the consensus is that, after 50 years of practice, nothing comes out of Tharp that she hasn’t thoroughly remade as her own.
When this highly lauded new program hits the stage at the Granada on Friday, October 9, presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures, Tharp will be in the house, but the real news of her visit to Santa Barbara is that on Saturday, October 10, presumably after arising at her standard ritualistic predawn hour, Tharp will be in the park — Alameda Park, that is — for an unusual and highly anticipated performance of her 1970 work “The One Hundreds.” This watershed composition put Tharp into the history books, as it requires a cast that includes 100 or more volunteers, many of whom have had no formal training in dance. With 100 Santa Barbara volunteers already signed on and dozens more on the waiting list, participation in this free immersive experience will be more exclusive than the gala event at the Granada the night before. But relax — viewing it will be as free and open to all as the weather.
Built on 100 specific movement phrases each created to fit a count of 11 beats, “The One Hundreds” plays out in a sequence carefully programmed to be what Tharp has called “an investigation of physical rigor and its deterioration.” First, two professional dancers perform the 100 11-beat phrases simultaneously, and then a slightly larger ensemble of five repeats them in bursts of 20 phrases each. “The One Hundreds” reaches its memorable climax as the 100 volunteers, all of them trained that day by Tharp and her dancers, do their best to accomplish what they have been taught within the confines of a single collective countdown of those same 11 beats.
Tharp’s been doing “The One Hundreds” all over the world for almost as long as she’s been a choreographer, and what began as a countercultural gesture in the tradition of John Cage and Claes Oldenburg has morphed with time into an exercise in nostalgia, with volunteers requested to dress as though it were the 1960s and prizes awarded to those deemed to have come up with the best costumes. But that doesn’t mean that Tharp has lost any of the fire with which she initiated this collaboration, and she still attends to every detail with her own scrupulous eye and commanding voice, shouting out instructions to volunteers like “Give it more passion,” or even the one-word direction, “Vulnerable!” With so many years and accolades behind her at this point, no one expects Tharp to take such a personal approach, but it is in her nature to do so; she can’t help but stretch toward perfection, even in a piece that’s designed to deteriorate.
The same urge toward the ideal that’s evident in Tharp’s attitude toward “The One Hundreds” gets reflected in distinctly contrasting ways in the new compositions, “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie.” In fact, Tharp has described “Preludes and Fugues” as her vision of “the world as it should be” and “Yowzie” as the world “as it is.” The inspiration for “Preludes and Fugues” came early on in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Tharp’s memory was pricked by the repetition in the press of the initials for the World Trade Centers, “WTC I” and “WTC II.” This reminded her of Bach’s “WTC,” the Well-Tempered Clavier, which is also divided into segments. She entered the studio of her penthouse on Central Park West, put on Bach’s music, and began to move. Thus the healing process after 9/11 and the creation of this new work combined into a single action, and one uniquely appropriate to an artist so deeply identified with the fate of New York.
As I spoke with Tharp by phone from her hotel in Boulder a week ago, it became clear that Bach occupies a special place in her pantheon of artists and may even stand for her as a kind of role model. She praised him for being “about context” and “ecumenical,” and described his music as “weaving together all kinds of influences in a way that is highly moral and that expresses the humanistic value of toleration, yet he finds that through form, diversity can be unified.” For Tharp, this achievement of unity in diversity is key, and she would seem to be referring to her own practice when she adds, “That’s the point of doing this work. You employ different tools to achieve your effects, and you typically experience the most stylistic freedom when you are operating at a crossroads. Bach has this exposure to everything, yet he can weld what he knows together into one unit. It is both a useful and a moral process. It spans many styles, and it makes a contribution.”
Talking about “Yowzie,” Tharp expresses a different set of objectives. “The title is taken from the kind of exclamation you might see in a cartoon balloon,” she said. She has spent a lot of time thinking about the great comedians of the silent film era and about the standard comic plot form, or, as she puts it: “You set it up, it goes wrong; you try to fix it, and it goes wrong anyway.”
Whether you choose to attend the concert at the Granada on Friday night, the community event in Alameda Park on Saturday, or both, one thing is certain: Twyla Tharp will not pass this way without having an impact. To paraphrase the title of her autobiography, push will come to shove, hundreds will move, and thousands will be moved.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents the Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, October 9, at 8 p.m. “The One Hundreds” will be performed by a group of volunteers and Tharp’s company in Alameda Park on Saturday, October 10, at 3 p.m. For tickets and information about Friday night’s performance, call (805) 899-2222 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. Attendance at Saturday’s event is free and open to the public.