To celebrate a half-century of making dances, Twyla Tharp has done one of the most difficult things a performing artist can do. For her anniversary tour, which landed her and her dancers at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Wednesday, it’s not so much her creation of two new works — both high-energy, deeply musical and engaging — that is extraordinary.
It’s the tour itself.
Tharp, 74, has hit the road for a three-month, 17-city trek. This means commercial flights and bus rides, soul-sucking waits and frantic rushing, loading her show in and out of theaters, managing the health, emotions and general well-being of her 12 dancers and the creative team. And herself.
The last time she did this, she told me in a recent interview, was with Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she embarked on a national tour in the early 1990s. With a private jet.
More than 20 years later, booking a dance show in 17 cities is a miracle. But the work of getting here has been in many ways a muddy slog, as Tharp has chronicled in an illuminating series of blog posts for the New York Times. The landscape for dance has changed. Has Tharp?
Her lengthy tour is a testament to the high regard in which Tharp is held, as a Tony and Emmy winner, a recipient of numerous other awards, and a choreographer whose work spans ballet, modern dance, Broadway, TV and film. I emphasize the tour and the work involved in getting through it because it’s an overlooked factor in the performing artist’s life, and directing one is an art form in itself, requiring stamina, bravery and grace.
The most inspiring thing about Tharp is this: She is not afraid to scare herself. Lead a road trip? With new, untested works — no reliable crowd-pleasers? This woman of unbreakable discipline, as passionate about her daily creative routine as she is about her quiet evenings at home with books, has willingly leaped into the unknown. And she’s done it while taking along lots of people whose livelihoods depend on her.
If the dances on this tour aren’t quite hits, they testify to a stout heart beating at full strength. The premieres Tharp created for her anniversary tour — “Preludes and Fugues,” accompanied by Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and “Yowzie,” with jazz performed by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9 — contain many of the characteristics that have won Tharp her broad fan base. There is the vigorous energy, the slouchy ease, the humanity and wit.
“Preludes and Fugues” is somewhat serene for a Tharp work, with costumer Santo Loquasto’s earth tones and a pronounced sense of uplift and reaching beyond. Boisterous “Yowzie” is a riot of vaudevillian, knockabout antics. But in both there is an effort to bring everyone into harmony. In “Preludes,” one sees room for sorrow and confusion as well as joy. “Yowzie’s” drunkards and womanizers and scheming twins and sass-baskets all come together in the end and threaten to hurl themselves at us. They laugh that we flinched, and we laugh with them.
James Ingalls’s lighting was utterly spellbinding. The upstage space was like black night, with the dancers seeming to appear and disappear.
Each work was introduced by a brass fanfare composed by John Zorn, with more exuberant dancing. The first sounded flimsy and grating; the second was more solidly celebratory. Simpler stage activity would have set them off better from the full-company works that followed.
What invigorates about Tharp is her restless and unceasing quest to reveal truth in human movement. It’s good to witness Tharp’s dauntless inquiries into the body’s powers, no matter the challenges. We should all be so courageous. With her work ethic, her commitment, her belief in human goodness and beauty, Tharp brings Ralph Waldo Emerson to mind, and indeed he is a Tharp favorite. These words of his apply to no one better: “A strenuous soul hates cheap successes.”
The Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour appears at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Nov. 14. Tickets, 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/DQDSB.