‘Minimalism and Me’ Review: Twyla Tharp Tells Her Story

Twyla Tharp Dance
Wall Street Journal

As the headliner of “Minimalism and Me,” Twyla Tharp opens and closes the 90-minute performance (including intermission) now at the Joyce Theater through Dec. 9. The white-haired, 77-year-old choreographer, dressed in white oxfords, slacks and top, and wearing delicate dangle earring and red-framed glasses, launches her show by taking the center of a stage backed by a projection of a painted-papyrus image of the Egyptian goddess Nut.

For the first 40 minutes or so of this double bill, Ms. Tharp recounts how her early career proceeded from “Tank Dive,” her first choreographic effort in 1965, with its references to Nut as “the border between order and chaos.” After the intermission, her program offers “Eight Jelly Rolls,” from 1971, the first of what would be numerous music-inspired works. A tally of Ms. Tharp’s creations now stands at 129 dances, 12 television specials, five Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two-figure skating routines. “Minimalism and Me” stresses her beginnings.

Ms. Tharp describes, with further still and film-clip projections following the hieroglyphics-strewn opening one, how from her largely static choreographic debut in “Tank Dive” she came to find her way less and less minimally. The scripted rundown of highlights—which she reads in a clipped sing-song typical of her inimitable wisecracking delivery—has the air of a wily infomercial: “To me [”Tank Dive”] was the beginning of the universe!”

The “show” aspect of her presentation mates with its “tell” part by involving the six dancers of her current company as well as 11 other individuals, a multigenerational group of volunteers selected for the run. These “extras” represent the audience members, museum-goers, pedestrians and students who figured in eight of the nine early Tharp works included here. The often brief excerpts reconstructing Ms. Tharp’s early efforts aimed at questioning the modern dance of her day still look like the academic exercises they were in their time, even as the rich dance activity that followed them, sometimes taking off from their experimentation, leaves them resembling seeds of postmodernism rather than stand-alone dance statements.

The narrated run-up to the program’s 25-minute “Eight Jelly Rolls” is as snappy as it is selective, and it might be tricky to follow for anyone unfamiliar with Ms. Tharp’s repertory. Still, the three audiences I was part of seemed happily engaged and amused by the theatrical lecture-demonstration, which featured as its most extended dance portion an approximately seven-minute excerpt of “The Fugue,” a rigorous, 13-minute trio from 1970 performed with no accompaniment other than its footfalls, which resonate percussively on an amplified stage. Read the full review here