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Review: Choreographer Twyla Tharp, still inventing at 82, displays her latest creations

This photo provided by Joyce Theater shows Daisy Jacobson, Miriam Gittens, Jake Tribus, Reed Tankersley in “Twyla Tharp Dance." at New York's intimate Joyce Theater. Choreographer Twyla Tharp has been making dances for six decades, and she's still creating at 82. Her latest production is a three-part show, “Twyla Tharp Dance,” at New York's intimate Joyce Theater. (Steven Pisano/Joyce Theater via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — There are many adjectives one might use to describe the force of nature that is Twyla Tharp. “Shy” is not one.

This includes at curtain calls. At the opening of her current show at New York’s Joyce Theater, her dancers went to escort the 82-year-old choreographer onto the stage for a bow — but she was in more of a rush, bounding out from the wings in her black leathery pants and boots. As if there were no time to waste, an attitude that infuses her dances as well.

Try to get a ticket to “Twyla Tharp Dance,” a two-week engagement, and you’ll likely see “sold out” (it’s worth the try anyway) — a testament to the enduring enthusiasm of dance audiences for both her classics and her continued urge to create. Of the three dances featured, two are new.

The evening begins with an oldie, though, the 1975 “Ocean’s Motion,” set to Chuck Berry songs with five dancers strutting the stage, exuding the youth and cool of the music and somehow seeming rebellious even in 2024. Clad in shorts and tanks and tights, with hot pink the dominant color, the dancers (Miriam Gittens, Daisy Jacobson, Skye Mattox, Reed Tankersley, and Jake Tribus) bump and grind and act like the world is their oyster.

The highlight of the evening comes next – especially for fans of Herman Cornejo, the longtime, dashing Argentine star of American Ballet Theatre who clearly feels a synergy with Tharp, especially late in his career. The choreographer sets this solo, “Brel,” which the two have been working on for several years, to the songs and voice of Jacques Brel. It seems all at once a piece about Brel and about the dancer himself, surveying his past, present and future.

At moments on opening night, it was to Cornejo’s expressive eyes that one's attention was drawn, whatever his limbs were doing. Every once in a while he broke into a flourish of virtuosic steps that, in an opera house, would get an immediate cheer from balletomanes. But here, dressed not in tights but in a subdued costume of black trousers and long-sleeved shirt, it felt like Cornejo and Tharp were going for a more soulful, personal connection with the audience. At the end, bowing to the biggest cheers of the evening, Cornejo simply sat down on the stage and smiled.

Cornejo alternates evenings with Daniel Ulbricht of New York City Ballet — just two of the many prominent dancers who wisely grab the chance to dance with Tharp when they can. Another is the gifted Cassandra Trenary of ABT, whose blazing technique was a highlight of Tharp’s 2022 engagement at New York City Center, a much larger venue than the intimate Joyce, featuring the classics “In the Upper Room” and “Nine Sinatra Songs.”

Trenary is featured here in “The Ballet Master,” the last dance of the evening, a happily chaotic affair about a choreographer (John Selya, Tharp’s collaborator of more than two decades) trying to run a rehearsal that morphs into a performance of “Don Quixote” (sort of) with Selya as the titular windmill-fighting dreamer and Ulbricht as Sancho Panza. Trenary, channeling Dulcinea, begins delicately on pointe and ends up in sneakers and gold spandex shorts, moving like an elite athlete — the two very different sides of a Tharp ballerina.

Speaking of Tharp and adjectives: “Tireless” is one often used, to describe both her and her dancers, of whom she always expects much. They always seem to rise to the challenge.

“Twyla Tharp Dance” runs though Feb. 25.

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press

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