Twyla Tharp keeps everyone on their toes in ‘All American’

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post - Luis R. Torres and Sona Kharatian rehearse for “All American.”

In her best, loosest moments, Twyla Tharp choreographs the way Woody Allen writes — with a keen understanding of personality, idiosyncratic rhythm and the essence of the performer.

In much the same way that Allen crafted the title character of “Annie Hall” (1977) to distill perfectly Diane Keaton’s offbeat hesitancies and kookiness, Tharp created the leading male role in “Push Comes to Shove” (1976) to tease out the contradictions, playfulness and sexual tension coiled up inside ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov. The portrait still feels right all these years later, even when danced by another man in entirely different circumstances. This was one of the many satisfactions of the Washington Ballet’s “Twyla Tharp: All American” program, which opened at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Thursday.

Tharp was in the audience Thursday. It was, perhaps, a rare moment of repose for her. At 70, she shows no signs of slowing down, nor is there any dearth of her work on the landscape. The Atlanta Ballet premiered her first full-length children’s production, “The Princess and the Goblin,” two weeks ago. Her Sinatra musical, “Come Fly Away,” will come to the Kennedy Center in April.

It feels like a celebration is in order, and this program is just the thing. The works are well-chosen, so full of character, inventive movement, whimsy and tart observation. And perhaps the greatest pleasure was seeing them interpreted by such winsome and eager dancers.

“Push” came off especially well, with Jonathan Jordan in the Baryshnikov role. He noodled around with such relish, swiveling his hips in those snug velvet britches — part Lothario, part bored jester — as if he were making up the steps on the spot. The not-so-subtle, deliciously deadpan rivalry between Maki Onuki and Sona Kharatian bore the perfect edge.

But the humor aside, what’s thrilling is the way Tharp whips together her own invented moves with brisk ballet technique, varying the accents, giving the ballerinas a powerful musical emphasis here, unexpected delicacy there, mixing up the rhythms in the ensemble — in effect, scoring the choreography like a jazz composition. (The music is Joseph Lamb’s “Bohemia Rag 1919” and Haydn’s Symphony in C, Op. 82.) That’s part of the joke, too — and part of the brilliance.

So it goes in “Surfer at the River Styx,” which aims for mystery but is at its best simply the unleashing of big, barely contained male energy in the currents of Donald Knaack’s live percussion, hammered out on trash-can lids and such. The labor wasn’t masked in the exhaustive solos — for Jared Nelson, the anti-star in a loose T-shirt and cargo shorts but with a star’s stamina and cool, and Jordan again, carving out a fiery string of turns and floating to a serene, controlled finish. But that made them all the more heroic.

The Washington Ballet has looked better in “Nine Sinatra Songs” than it did Thursday; not every couple was at ease. Many of the pairings didn’t look like they’d last five minutes. But it was such an exuberant finish, those stylish men sweeping their partners overhead to “My Way,” spinning them in their arms as if they were swirling to a Strauss waltz. You’d almost think Tharp was one of life’s optimists.

Twyla Tharp: All American

will be performed by the Washington Ballet on Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 and 6:30 p.m at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NE.
$20-$125. 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org .

 
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