Twyla Tharp Won’t Let Go of Funny Dance — Thank Goodness!

Left to right: Daniel Ulbricht, Miriam Gittens, Daisy Jacobson, Photo by Steven Pisano
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By Liana Wilson-Graff

Twyla Tharp Dance makes a splash at The Joyce this week with a masterclass in dance
characterization. Ranging from gorgeously funny melodrama to ridiculous play with a lot of
heart, there is no shortage of humor in this stacked, three piece show. Tharp debuts two new
works, BreI, a complex and indulgent solo performed by prolific ballet dancers, Herman Cornejo
and Daniel Ulbricht on alternating nights, and The Ballet Master performed by the ensemble,
specifically showcasing Tony-nominated actor and ballet-trained dancer, John Selya, and his
ability to capture an audience without saying a word.

Left to right: Miriam Gittens, Daisy Jacobson, Skye Mattox,Photo by Steven Pisano

The show begins with the company dancers performing Tharp’s classic piece originally
premiered in 1975, Ocean’s Motion, set to a melange of songs by Chuck Berry that drive the
momentum and set a very distinct tone for this poppy piece tinged with very strong teenage
energy. Although this piece is incredibly showy in nature, there is a lot to dissect past the
spectacle and musicality of it all. This is a group of individuals that although dance together,
are acting to each other, not with each other. The frenemies are constantly showing off with
punchy and intricate technical movement, attempting to assert dominance over one another, yet they rarely look each other in the eye or seem to take their peers in. This is especially clear
during the solo moments of the piece; only when dancers had the stage to themselves did we
see a comfortable presence and sense of groundedness in the body and sense of self.
Capturing the insecurity and choppiness of adolescence without actually acting out a cowering
or indulgent drama, Ocean’s Motion explores these complicated feelings in a feel-good way, not
forgetting to represent the coolness, showiness, competitiveness, vital energy, and underlying
discomfort that exists in the bodies of us all as teenagers. Taking in these deeper aspects of the
piece along with its fun nostalgia, Ocean’s Motion is a joy to watch.

Tharp’s show takes a welcome turn with the second piece Brel. Brel crafts an incredibly
engaging, layered, sad, and hilarious character ultimately brought to outstanding fruition by
Cornejo and Ulbricht. Taking us on the journey of a performer with a dark churning internal life
that translates to a ridiculously dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny exterior, this character is quite
annoying but so, so loveable. Set to the music of Jacques Brel, we are transported into the
world of a French artist, with an air of pretentiousness, but who cares deeply about his work. He
begins the piece downcast, affected, rarely looking to the audience, so much so that we are
clued into the fact that our role as spectators will be crucial to this piece and this character’s
development. With each song, the performer becomes more and more consuming of the
audience’s attention and applause. Tharp nails this vision of spectatorship and ego by layering
the sounds of our live applause with the recorded applause of an audience watching Brel sing.

Herman Cornejo, Photo by Steven Pisano

The dancer’s balletic movement goes from melodramatic and lingering, to stronger and
empowered, then to that of a drunken showman, into his drunken stupor, to the dreamy world
inside his head, and finally to graceful self-respect as life goes on. By the end of this piece, I
loved this dancer, I loved this character, and I loved the compassion and wit in Tharp’s vision.
While receiving a notably long round of applause at the end of the piece, Cornejo flopped on the
ground, legs splayed out in front of him, with a genuine smile on his face and a fist in the air as
the curtain lowered — you’ve got to love him. If you need a reason to come to this show, Brel is it.

Tharp’s program ends with another debut, The Ballet Master. A theatrical piece jumping in and
out of the mind of a ballet choreographer as he plays out his dreams as a young heroic,
charming principal dancer attempting to woo the ballerinas he performs with, and fights with his
young sidekick as the rest dancers in the company move like water around them. Tharp creates
a really fun, choreographically interesting representation of the rehearsal space and the studio
that grounds us in the energy of The Ballet Master before we enter the choreographer’s fantasy
world. All the company dancers shine in this piece, as Selya casts a distinct atmosphere and
character arc to ground it all. The Ballet Master is a fun piece, a silly ode to the artist, and proof
that legend Twyla Tharp will never let go of joy and humor — we thank her for it!

Clockwise from top: John Selya, Cassandra Trenary, Daniel Ulbricht, Photo by Steven Pisano

Twyla Tharp Dance’s program of two world premieres and one classic work, presented by The
Joyce Theater Foundation (Linda Shelton, Executive Director) is playing at The Joyce Theater
from February 13-25. Tickets, ranging in price from $12-$82 including fees, can be purchased here, or by calling JoyceCharge at 212-242-0800. Please note: ticket prices are
subject to change. The Joyce Theater is located at 175 Eighth Avenue at West 19th Street.
For more information, please visit The Joyce website


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