Twyla Tharp combined clever choreography with patriotism of the most benign and idealistic sort in her program of commentary and scenes from works in progress in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center.
Tharp has been an artist in residence creating new dances at the Kennedy Center for two months. Sequences from them were performed to taped accompaniment in the presentation, which she called "Twyla Tharp in Washington: New Works." It will continue through Oct. 2.In some ways, this informal concert was similar to the events she presented last September at the City Center in New York. Like them, it got under way with dancers rehearsing on stage. Then Tharp discussed choreography in general and her own choreographic preoccupations, illustrating her remarks with dance sequences.
What made the Washington program special was the emphasis Tharp placed upon being in the national capital, which she said had started her thinking seriously about what it means to be an American, both as a dancer and as a citizen. She concluded that, for her, the United States was a nation that had encouraged diversity and maintained "a sense of permanent possibilities."
She ended the evening with a dance to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," in which steps began simply and grew increasingly intricate without losing their coherence or dignity.
The talented group of dancers Tharp assembled for the Washington residency included Stacy Caddell, Melinda DeChiazza, Petter Jacobsson, Shawn Mahoney, David Porter, John Selya and Shawn Stevens. She set them moving in exercises that exemplified basic contrasts between up and down, in and out, and slow and fast.
She also showed examples of some of the choreographic assignments she had given them in Washington. In one, they had to pretend they were waltzing at a party in a barn in the American Southwest while a flock of pigeons flew overhead. In another, everyone performed the same steps, but with a different motivation.
For instance, one dancer pretended to be a hypochondriac, another mimed consulting an appointment book and still another portrayed someone stranded on a desert island.
There were several chunks from the still untitled new dances Tharp choreographed this summer. The most substantial in length and quality was a mysterious dramatic piece to violin music by Bela Bartok. All the performers wore simple costumes. Yet Caddell commanded special attention, not only because she was in red and everyone else was in black but also because even though she often kept apart from the other characters, she always seemed to dominate them.
Other snippets were also entertaining. Tharp and her troupe's four men did easygoing sliding and shuffling steps to Duke Ellington.
The major disappointment was a sequence created to excerpts from Gluck's "Don Juan," one of the greatest ballet scores of the 18th century. Although the music has wonderful verve and intensity, Tharp responded to it superficially. She turned all her men into Don Juans forever in pursuit of women. But the women were smart and strong enough to refuse them. This was in itself not a bad comic idea. Unfortunately, Tharp belabored it with an excess of foppish and foolish gestures.
Of course, her "Don Juan" was only a work in progress. No one can predict what Tharp will do with it. Conceivably, it may turn into a masterpiece, whereas some of the program's more dazzling bits and pieces may look dull in their final forum.
All in all, it was an evening of unfinished choreographic business during which Tharp proved to be a witty and persuasive lecturer. Yet her true talent lies in choreography. She should bring her works in progress to completion.