Twyla Tharp’s whimsical idiom of jazz, ballet, and modern dance honors play, humor, characterization, and musicality, and sometimes bodies swing like a jazz quartet. Tharp blends movement with well-known pieces of music. This time she explores Baroque and jazz music.

The choreography in Preludes and Fugues precisely aligns with musical motifs and phrases of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or the music guides the mood of the dance. Bach created Well-Tempered Clavier to experiment with tightly knit compositional structures and key signatures to challenge the pianist. Tharp adopted the challenge of choreographing to this contrapuntal complexity. She engages with these structures using her creative aplomb, humor, creative partnering, body design, and incredibly skillful and willing dancers; however, something essential seems lacking. Each small section of the whole dance is interesting, but it seems the larger whole was not fully considered. On a positive note, the audience experienced the playfulness, physical exertion, and relationship of self-to-other through interesting moments during the dance, especially during partnering. However, there was little thematic through-line in the work as a whole, limiting the engagement of the audience over time. Each section of the dance was entertaining, but the overall work lacked unity around a theme or concept that would engage the audience to feel – keyword to feel – that they were a part of the experience. The recapitulation was refreshing, but because of this lack of consideration to the unity of the work, the piece was light fare. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues were designed specifically to explore music theory, and Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues was challenged by the limitations set by those goals of Bach’s highly intellectual music. Arabesques, pirouettes, jumps, and asymmetrical lifts are ubiquitous and require effortful initiations and conclusions. The men usually have more complex choreography and expressive energy use. The male dancers, Daniel Baker, Nicholas Coppula, Matthew Dibble, Eric Otto, John Selya, Reed Tankersley, and Ron Todorowski, performed with strong, expressive, gutsy, bold, and buoyant qualities. The female dancers, Rika Okamoto, Amy Ruggiero, Ramona Kelley, Eva Trapp, Savannah Lowery, and Kaitlyn Gilliland, danced with clear placement, controlled flow, direct use of space, and precise timing. Costumes, by Santo Loquasto, were well suited for the movement. The men wore cream-colored trousers and shirts with gold belt and ballet slippers. The women wore leotard dresses in rich hues with cream-colored piping.

Tharp’s dance titled Yowzie, performed by the company minus Otto, hit us from all sides like a carnival barker demanding our attention. Tharp took us all on a trip to a vaudeville show, to a back alley, to a singles party, to a place where we could unwind and not pay attention to rules or decorum, and to a toke party where everyone was wearing tie-dyed, flame colored, tropical-print, ripped clothes, leg warmers, and headbands. It was as if all the hippy and counter culture clothes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s were rolled into one style to celebrate Tharp’s 50 years of choreography. Loquasto created a playful mood with his costumes and scene design. Camp, humor, and layered stories among women and men, men and men, and friends and acquaintances were rolled together to share a peek at the life of people in various ways of humans unwinding together. The type of expressivity, style of humor, and approach to energy use and phrasing began to take on repetitiveness and predictability throughout the evening, but Yowzie was playful. It allowed us to take ourselves less seriously, and to see the quirky side of human relationships. While there are no morality rules available to artists regarding how to select music for one’s art making, one must be respectful when selecting music by African Americans who lived and performed jazz tunes about their struggle living in poverty and without equal rights. Tharp chose African American music by Jelly Roll Morton, Wesley Wilson, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and Henry Butler for this work. Those men performed jazz songs that were seemingly fun due to their lively rhythms, but really they were not about fun. These lively songs, which were created to help African Americans to get through a life of struggle, were seemingly used as a commodity in Yowzie.

On a positive note, the liveliest dancing of the evening was at the end of Yowzie, when the company was dancing with less inhibition, using their fullest jazz dance ephebism, hot and cool interplay, and relaxed weight sensing. It was at that time, and not a moment earlier, that Tharp did pay homage to jazz dance and the people who created it.