So Twyla Tharp is finally on broadway, at the big, plush Winter Garden. She isn't the only choreographer who has tried to branch out from dance-associated theaters, but I can't think of another who so rightly belongs on the Great White Way. Ever since Tharp began forging a style based on vernacular gesture and attitudes, she has been celebrating qualities one connects with Broadway at its best -- glamour, drive, and professionalism, all delivered under a cultivated aura of insouciance.
Those qualities were much in evidence as the Tharp company began a three-week season that runs until April 12. There was also a high level of expectancy in the audience, not only because of the significance of a Broadway debut but also because the opening-night program, which will rotate with two others, featured a New York premiere and a world premiere.
Well, what can one say in the way of condolence. Even a terrific choreographer like Tharp is entitled to a few clinkers. It's just that a double blow on one program carries four times its impact when the choreographer and occasion are special.
"Brahms' Paganini," the world premiere, is the more interesting failure. Set to Books I and II of Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Paganini," the dance tries to describe in quite visceral terms the knotty rigor of the piano music. Tharp goes after her quarry in two ways. Book I she sets as a solo for a man, and although it is easy-going and often contemplative in feeling, it is also a grand-stand play in virtuosity simply because it's so long. It runs for about 15 minutes, without any moment of rest. When one realizes that a bravado Russian pas de deux is shorter than this "pas for one," one can at least appreciate the statistical aspect, if not the substance, of this dance.
The burdens of dancing are shared by five in Book II, but the physical demands that Tharp diffuses among several people are more than recouped by the nature of the dancing itself. It is about the strenuousness of partnering. It dwells on rough edges, near misses, and harsh bodily impact. Canon structure usually produces buoyancy. Here it produces a jagged, bumpy ride.
"Brahms' Paganini" is a two-pronged attack.While its duality is original, its tone is abrasive. The music is seen as something to get the better of. Its complexity Tharp treats as fussiness. Its force Tharp conceives as blitz. The dancers are perceived as victims. And the dancing itself is basically a rehash of old ideas. Split-second partnering has become something of a Tharp trademark , but it is seem to much wittier effect in, say, the gorgeous "Baker's Dozen," which is also on the bill this season.
The male solo is a hand-me-down from Tharp's recent experiments with ice skaters. While incessant gliding and spinning are necesssities on ice, it looks mindless and repetitious on a hard floor. This solo is muscle-boggling for its length, but I do wonder if invention was sacrificed for inclusion in the Guinness Book of RecordS.
"Ocean's Motion," made in 1975 but new to this side of the ocean, is a tribute to teen-age culture and one of its most celebrated spokesmen, Chuck Berry. "Hail, hail rock 'n' roll," Berry asserts in his most famous song, "School Days." In "Ocean's Motion" Tharp hails all the wonderful-awful things about teen-agers -- their smugness, their airs, their rudeness, even their gum-chewing. And I say "Hail, hail" to anyone who sees the humor of it and sees through to the vulnerability underneath it -- something familiar to anyone old enough to have been a teenager then, or to have watched them grow into and out of that stage.
Where, then, does "Ocean's Motion" go wrong? In satirizing trademarks of teenagerdom, Tharp ends up satirizing her own style. Instead of developing social images into dange images, she's content to let the stances and the be-bopping stand for themselves. Trouble is, they are so self-explanatory that they are cliches.