Evoking the underworld and the afterlife in a seminal world premiere, Twyla Tharp seamlessly fused the elements of ballet and modern dance in her Surfer at the Styx, performed by her new company, Twyla Tharp Dance, July 6 at the American Dance Festival. After a dozen years of freelance choreography, Tharp has gathered a formidable group of talented dancers who showcase her material beautifully.
The evening began with Mozart Clarinet Quintet K581, a blending of classical and modern performed in traditional sequences of duets, solos, pas de deux. Dressed in harlequin tunics and leotards, the dancers introduced moments of humor--a nearly dropped ballerina lifted awkwardly, a guy dancer carrying another guy off stage, hands under his buttocks, and spontaneous mid-dance handshaking by all--that broke the audience into paroxysms of laughter. The dancers often danced elegantly, then posed only to let the pose go and boogie. Mozart would have loved this dance, at once reverent and irreverent--a piece that encouraged you to laugh during parlor music.
Despite Mozart's strength, it was Surfer at the Styx that took the audience to places before unseen. Surfer will be seen as Tharp's piece of genius. Foreshadowing the dance's modern darkness, Tharp placed dancers in simple black dress on the lawn in front of Duke Chapel as the crowd gathered before the performance. Holding peacock feathers, their faces glazed with otherworldly looks, the dancers walked in slow motion toward Page Auditorium. The effect was both entrancing and eerie, qualities the dance itself would uphold.
Surfer at the Styx, the last in the six dance series of Doris Duke Millennium Awards for modern dance and jazz music collaboration, successfully paired ballet and modern movement with jazz. Many of these collaborations have failed to showcase the choreographer's talent, following the musical score without adding interpretation, as if it were a metronome. Tharp's take on Donald Knaack's percussive piece, however, was transformative.
Tharp's stage set was a black drop with ladders collaged to the surface. Two male soloists, John Seyla and Keith Roberts, began nearly every sequence, representing "the living" who, in this dance, would be claimed by the dead and passed over to the next life. Dressed in white cut-off T-shirt and pants, and gray shirt and long pants, respectively, the soloists initially resisted the seduction of the dead. Only when the music collaborated with the power of the underworld--with cymbals sounding like shots that reverberated through the gyrating bodies of the men--did the living begin to give in. Tharp choreographed to each of the soloists' form and strength; Mr. Seyla was the judo kicker, the jazzy whirler, and Mr. Roberts was the sinewy leaper, his legs extended in a long line. Unlike the dead, who were dancers of similar physical size, performing ritualistic movements, all dressed in tight black pants and bras and leotards, these two men maintained striking individuality.
The dead entered dancing hypnotically, covering their eyes, clasping their hands as if manacled, and hurling their arms up from between their legs as they stood up from crouching. "The living" danced somewhat frenetically with the dead in duets, trios and quartets, including a brief tango, and then they broke to dance alone. The dead turned in Egyptian-like profile while the living faced the audience, emitting anxiety in quick angular movements, often accented by Tharp's usual high arm with the hand curved. As the dance progressed, the dead turned devilishly sexy, pulling their palms along their inner thighs up through the line of their crotches.
Though loud, the drums never sounded tribal, and in combination with the cymbals, the effect was Tibetan at times, and always magical. The living seemed to dance on top of the beats as if on water, each step carrying them further across the River Styx. The dead awaited the moment when the living would succumb to the currents. After performing stunning circles of jetés, the soloists each danced a last dance that followed the cymbal shots, and their celebration became a dance of submission. The dancers left the stage and all returned dressed in neutral shorts and leotards, moving calmly now, no longer fighting one another or the waters of death, but harmoniously lifting each other, turning and melding to one group, one female held on high. What had begun as two assailed men and a dark foursome became a peaceful assembly of six, dancing in the halcyon glow of the next life. By at once so seriously and yet so whimsically joining ballet and modern dance, these two world premieres mark a pivotal point in dance history.
On July 3 and 5, Jane Comfort and Company performed two pieces at Reynolds. Comfort, an art graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, is known for her imaginative postmodern works that combine dance and theater. The first piece, Asphalt, was the world premiere of her rock opera in progress. Themes of recovering memory recurred throughout as the hero, Racine, a black man, searched New York City for his old apartment, where there had been a fire and a family trauma.
Comfort's accomplished cast sung songs rooted in gospel, and African-American dance steps were incorporated into the choreography. When Racine met his girlfriend, Couchette, a New Yorker, the mutual infatuation was danced poignantly. Couchette also faced her own memories of the building she lived in, slated for demolition. A black light spotting dancers accentuated the difficulty of recall and Jane Comfort's prowess as a visual artist, which carried over into all her staging and set design. A sudden set change to a backdrop of dots made the stage look like a field of snow. A red drop with dancers behind it evoked the specter of nightmares. This dance was rare among dances in its exploration of the power of place as a stimulus to remembering.
Much has been written about Comfort's second piece, Underground River , the evocation of the inner life of Cara, a girl in a coma. The poignant combination of singing, dancing, playing and voices from the hospital room made this unique work moving and utterly original. During one scene, Cara's parasol ties gave rise to a little white man- puppet on sticks that the dancers manipulated, and her flash cards became birds that the little man tried to reach. In such a moment, the parallel to Cara's inability to reach the outer world was heartbreaking. The audience laughed and cried as they experienced the power of this masterpiece.