Portland’s Whitebird Dance Presents Twyla Tharp, Oct 14, 2015

How can one possibly review a great artist like Twyla Tharp? Her work spans fifty years – this is the 50th anniversary of her dance company – which deserves its own accolades in the arts-funding parched USA. 50 years of collaborations, discipline, technique, of musical explorations, theatrical endeavors, of making her mark, of being herself, of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and a strong, focused and no-nonsense woman at that. She’s a role model for creativity and the shrewd confidence needed to sustain growth over time and space. She is one of a kind.

Tharp’s presentation at the Arlene Schnitzer Performance Hall, produced by Portland’s Whitebird Dance, spanned a juicy aesthetic arc, from the past to now.

The show opened with “First Fanfare” with music by John Zorn. Taught and provocative, the piece explored time and shape with Tharp’s blend of highly-articulated and uncompromising technique, and the toss-away vernacular that looks deceptively easy, but is likely one of the hardest aspects of her choreography to master.

“Yowzie” was a fan favorite, with vibrant costumes by Santo Loquasto. Tharp’s movement style – her uncanny juxtaposition between the reverent ballet and classically modern work her dancers are all capable, and the bouncy, multi-layered percolating juggernaut – were delectably redolent in this piece.

Tharp’s company is remarkable, spanning ages and sizes, shorter/taller, younger/older – a bundle of personalities and uniformly delightful stage presences. John Selya is especially compelling – and hilarious in “Yowzie!”, as is Rika Okamoto, whose slight physique cannot possibly contain her seemingly boundless exuberance, and pitch-perfect sense of humor.

Tharp’s “Preludes and Fugues”, set to J.S.Bach, featured delicious duets and trios that flitted in and out of range, reacting and catalyzing the piece, as if dancers were bubbling over with new ideas as they discovered them. Here, Tharp’s penchant for pushing into the vertical space, without any wasted or romantic effort, her artistic facility over gesture and emotion – which she always holds a the reigns on -was apparent. And her musicality! Oh, to create in the pockets between the notes, in the spaces between the beats… To make dance that not only shows the audience more of the music, but does so by allowing the dance to tug at it sometimes, to serve as counterpoint, the way nature will sometimes grow at an angle away from itself, and in so doing, finds the real beauty.

When “Preludes and Fugues” came together, the entire company in a circle, moving in unison with the slightest lift of the leg, the arm, the chin, my soul was restored. There is not a whiff of mediocrity here, of extraneous noodlings or space fillers.  There’s a purity of intention, a powerful statement of humanity, and it had to be arrived at through the multitude of little moments it took to get there.

In that moment, as in so many more, Tharp reminded me why I love dance.

A Q&A followed, with Tharp, along with the suggestion of the possibility of her return in 2016, which was met with wild enthusiasm from the audience. If the company returns, I’ll make the trip up I-5 for sure.