Twyla Tharp is a choreographer of massive intelligence. At her best, she’s sharply witty, musically insightful and a blast to watch. The problem with her work has always been that it depends too much on the person performing it to give it the right shapes and intonations. Her dances swing back and forth between classical ballet and her signature style: loose, slouchy moves with off-balance turns, shrugs and free-swinging arms. On the right dancers this is fantastically engaging. Who will ever forget Mikhail Baryshnikov in her landmark Push Comes to Shove? It’s jazzy and improvisatory with a heavy overlay of cool but so much hangs on the dancer’s interpretation. Tharp packs so much into each phrase that it quickly looks overly busy if everything isn’t carefully thought out. Interestingly, it’s the older dancers who hold an advantage with her work because they bring a great deal more experience to the task of figuring out phrasing and knowing how to modulate steps so that everything fits.

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Eva Tharp in <i>Country Dances</i> by Twyla Tharp © Yi-Chun Wu
Kaitlyn Gilliland and Eva Tharp in Country Dances by Twyla Tharp
© Yi-Chun Wu
In this program, John Selya led Amy Ruggiero, Eva Trapp and Kaitlyn Gilliland (who appeared in all three dances on the program) in the revival of 1976’s Country Dances. If the mugging to the audience was a little over the top, the dancing was just right. Each of them found a way to make the steps fit and make sense on their own bodies. It’s a feel good piece that celebrates life but has little depth and it felt dated. Still, these are all veteran dancers with a keen sense of self and years of dance savvy. They never looked like they weren’t sure of what they were doing and they made it watchable. Gilliland, a New York City Ballet veteran, was comical and goofy. She can be Popeye’s Olive Oyl and she can throw down with classical ballet purity. Selya was slick and charming but also self-deprecating. Ruggiero and Trapp were just plain fun.

Beethoven Opus 130, a new work, featured Matthew Dibble, another veteran dancer. It’s fortunate for dancers like him that Tharp values experience and creates works that utilize their abilities and understanding of the craft. Dibble was intensely focused in this dark ballet portraying a character in search of something (but we don’t know what). It’s set to one of Beethoven’s later string quartets and is mostly in a classical dance idiom. It was portentous in atmosphere but obscure in meaning and never reached the level of profundity that it clearly was working toward. It doesn’t always matter whether or not the meaning is clear if the dancing is good enough. Here it was good enough. Kaitlyn Gilliland was his idée fixe, a towering, dominating figure who he chased fruitlessly. Ramona Kelley, one of the younger dancers, moved like a rocket.

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Matthew Dibble in <i>Beethoven Opus 130</i> by Twyla Tharp © Yi-Chun Wu
Kaitlyn Gilliland and Matthew Dibble in Beethoven Opus 130 by Twyla Tharp
© Yi-Chun Wu
 Brahms Paganini, a piece from 1980, closed the show and gave a perfect example of a dancer overwhelmed by too much choreography. Reed Tankersley danced the whole first book of the Brahms Paganini Variations as a solo and it is an exhausting piece of work. It requires the dancer to be in constant motion. He gave his full energy to it and had plenty of high moments but he needs a great deal more work on his phrasing to make it all hang together better. There were several occasions when he lost the thread of continuity which made the choreography seem disjointed. Book II of the variations was danced by Ruggiero and Kelley with Daniel Baker and Nicholas Coppula. Mostly, it was frenetic movement without a great payoff.

Twyla Tharp is as much an icon as a choreographer now. There’s nothing she hasn’t done and nobody she hasn’t worked with. She is one of the most significant choreographers of the twentieth century and she’s not done yet. These three works represent different periods of her creative output over a fifty-year career. This program is interesting and engaging even if it’s not her best work.