City Center Review: Twyla Now
November 17, 2021 | City Center – New York City, NY
On Wednesday, November 17th, a line stretched fast past the unique corner in Midtown Manhattan of 6th Avenue with crowds piling in for the opening night of TWYLA NOW, a mixed bill of the iconic American choreographer Twyla Tharp’s works through the years celebrating her 80th birthday.
The evening composed of an all-star roster from the most commemorated American companies today, including New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, and even a youth ensemble of Manhattan dancers.
It’s clear that Tharp did not pick only technicians nor mere performers for her cast, but true powerhouse artists. Delicacy had no place on the stage for Tharp’s movement as the athletic and commanding presence of the diverse dancers consumed the space adorning her signature frenzy whirlwind of steps so wildly abandoned and free to come to an immediate halt in split, chilling moments.
While the bill did not showcase the boldest and most renown of the choreographer’s repertoire, it was still undeniably “Twyla” and included two world premieres.
The show-stopping sensation of the evening wasRobbie Fairchild and Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet dancing Pergolesi, which premiered on November 27, 1992, and was danced by Tharp herself alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov, and titled after the composer.
The technically and artistically masterful yet hysterically funny duet was clever and captivating the instant Mearns entered stage right. Wearing all white shirts and trousers, Fairchild and Mearns had a glow about their elongated lines and moved like powerful angles while still commanding control over their expressions to make the audience double over in laughter with a single movement of their eyebrows.
What was so delightful about having this piece on the bill was that the audience did not have to be an expert in dance to understand that they were witnessing two technical masters of their craft on the stage and to also find humor in the subtle head nods and glances Mearns gave as Fairchild danced in circles around her.
However, being clued into the gender-flop secret of the performance (Mearns was dancing in the original role of Baryshnikov and Fairchild in the original role of Tharp) only added to the humor of the evening. It’s not every day the audience – in particular quite a posh one that evening – stops the show whooping with cheers in the middle of a piece. Mearns was gracefully humble and radiated happiness during her bow.
The underdog piece on the program was Tharp’s world premiere of Second Duet. Debuting her athletically and emotionally powerful choreography were dancers Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer of Alvin Ailey. I was surprised that this piece was the world premiere as it has a distinct late ‘90s feel to it, from the costuming of sweat pants rolled down below the hip bones and Harris in a sweatshirt with shoulder cutouts to the youth ensemble briefly passing through upstage with a boombox.
In a flurry of counterbalanced spins, kinetic lifts, and sudden plank falls performed in black sneakers, I interpreted Harris and Gilmer conveying a narrative of the frustrations and intoxication of a romantic relationship falling apart.
While Harris and Gilmer equally wore Tharp’s diverse and challenging choreography on their bodies immaculately, Harris had the audience in the palm of her hand from the start of the duet. Her artistic strength and power were unparalleled on the stage that evening, and I could feel every painstaking emotion on her face through my limbs and imprint on my own heart.
Tharp’s incessant movement phases crossed over the music in a pleasantly senseless fashion, and just as the audience began to be mesmerized and swept up by the sentiment of it, a simple controlled motion would create the most genius effect.
A moment that stopped time was near the end of the duet. As their feet continued to move at an inhuman lighting speed and their limbs tangled in ways that their two bodies became one, Harris rolled over Gilmer’s back with so much control it felt as if she was moving in slow motion. Her legs traced a full 180° split in the air, and the moment was so simply effective it resulted in many of the audience members trying to find their breath again.
Harris and Gilmer share the originating roles of Second Duet with American Ballet Theatre’s principal dancers Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell, who will perform it on alternate evenings.
Opening the evening were New York City Ballet’s principal ballerina Tiler Peck and recently promoted soloist Roman Mejia in a restaging of Tharp’s Cornbread which premiered with Peck and Fairchild at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014.
Set to a folksy and hoedown track of music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the lighthearted duet was a practical opener and felt very American in its stylish flair. Peck danced light and airily across the stage in her pointe shoes, and Mejia performed with quite the boyish flair – noting one moment in particular that caused the audience to chuckle as he looked back over his shoulder before beginning a solo with many classically influenced jumps and turns.
After an intermission following the three duets, the audience returned to their seats to see Tharp’s All In, placing the entire cast of her project onstage, including a youth ensemble of six dancers. The piece was joyous, to say the least. However, reusing some of the choreography from the duets and casting pairings that the audience had already witnessed earlier on the bill hindered the anticipation behind the world premiere.
Inlaid in the middle of the brief ensemble was a duet with Fairchild and Mearns, which was contrarily melancholy and contained moments to appreciate their masterful lines.
The most exhilarating part of All In, in my opinion, was the pure unbridled joy that could be spotted radiating from Harris’ face. From each moment that she entered the stage, it was impossible to watch any other dancer as her exhilaration for existing in that moment was contagious.
Yet it was frustrating – and additionally slightly distracting – to see Harris and Gilmer wearing “nude” costumes that did not match their dark skin color. After all the trials and tribulations dancers have been through in the past two years, this small negligence of costume choice felt like a giant step backwards into 2019 along with the slightly contradictory stagnant momentum behind the choreography.
Nonetheless, as Tharp triumphantly ran onto the stage to join the cast for bows at the end of the night, the audience enthusiastically thundered with a standing ovation. Since emerging into the New York City choreographer scene in the ‘60s as a female, a career spanning across Broadway, Lincoln Center, Hollywood, television, international stages, and even the ice rink, Tharp is something to celebrate. She has undeniably transformed the standard of the American dancer, and the audience was so incredibly blessed to witness some of her niche repertoire that evening to honor the American icon.
Featured Photo for this Twyla Now review of Tiler Peck and Peck and Roman Mejia in rehearsal. Photo by Paula Lobo, courtesy of City Center.
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