Twyla's NYCB Beethoven Seventh
by Marcia B. Siegel
Who can tell why it took more 25 years of stellar achievement before Twyla
Tharp made it into the New York City Ballet pantheon? Until last Saturday
night, she'd made NYCB only a single work, in collaboration with Jerome
Robbins, though several NYCB dancers have defected to dance with Tharp
elsewhere. Tharp's solo debut, The Beethoven Seventh, to the symphony of
the same name, was hardly the shy gesture of an ingenue.
The Napoleonic wars were ending when Beethoven wrote the Seventh, during a
period of personal success and intense patriotism. Tharp's ballet is big,
boisterous, flamboyant, eccentric, exciting, and an invigorating challenge for
the dancers. It has the look of some demented festivity on the verge of chaos,
just barely held in check by a classical plan.
The symphony never goes slower than allegro; even the minor-key dual melody of
the second movement paces deliberately forward. Perhaps to counter our
familiarity with this standby, the ballet plunges headlong and unpredictably
toward its conclusion. Tharp is upending classical form again, to the pique or
the delight of the audience, depending on one's expectations. Principal couples
head each of the first three movements (Peter Boal and Jenifer Ringer, Nikolaj
Hübbe and Wendy Whelan, Damian Woetzel and Miranda Weese), with a corps of
six more couples, and they all regroup for the ending. But it's the corps that
opens the work and carries it along, an enthusiastic rabble that has its own
life and isn't awed by the presence of nobility.
The principals too behave in unusual ways, their customary aplomb wrenched into
odd shapes and precarious off-balances, their technique pushed to Olympian
extremes. Boal and Ringer alternate supersonic pirouettes with social dance
pleasantries. The corps rushes in and out. Just when you give up thinking there
could be any connection or unanimity, everybody assembles into one symmetrical
wind-up on a series of musical fanfares. After this breathtaking moment, I was
swept into another world.
Hübbe and Whelan enter in waltz position and then dance a conventional but
extreme supported adagio. Then Whelan drifts away and Hübbe becomes the
yearning hero, full of the sturm und drang that most people associate with
Beethoven. Whelan flings her arms out in a fiery, elfin dance that suddenly
layers the whole movement into a history of romantic ballets. Hübbe, after
all, comes from the Royal Danish Ballet and has absorbed the 19th-century lore
of a rising middle class and its erotic attraction to the supernatural, as
depicted by the choreographer August Bournonville.
As Hübbe and Whelan negotiate an increasingly tenuous relationship, I'm
wondering which is under the spell of the other. Just when he seems to have
caught her, she's carried off by four men from the corps. Hübbe staggers
and droops in despair. She comes back briefly and is taken from him again. All
of this evoked Scotch Symphony, George Balanchine's gloss on
Bournonville's La Sylphide and the romantic ballet tradition. I'm not
making this up. Twyla Tharp does her research, and I believe she's never
without a subtext.
So now Damian Woetzel and Miranda Weese whirl away the tragedy like a pair of
jesters, and the corps joins in their games. Woetzel enters with double
assemblés, tumbles into a spin on his stomach, later somersaults
out from a one-legged takeoff. He "conducts" a contingent of women from the
corps. A trio of bumpkins form a clownish back-up chorus for him, and later
their girlfriends arrive, flicking between hearty and pious manners.
In the last movement, the principal couples rush on and off for small
variations, and the corps members all have paired up. The whole machinery
drives relentlessly to its conclusion, which I remember as men pushing their
partners along the floor, slicing in opposite directions, a tremendous clashing
of forces that somehow ends in a harmonious pose.
People have always complained that Twyla Tharp is not classical enough, but
that depends on your definition of classical. The Beethoven Seventh
doesn't display virtuosity in the regulation ways, it displays dancers. One of
Twyla Tharp's great gifts is that she incites dancers to surpass themselves.
Wendy Whelan, not known to me as a particularly expressive dancer, looked
mischievous and exuberant, and everyone seemed possessed of unusual
Saturday was George Balanchine's birthday, and both of the day's performances
featured his ballets. The occasion was duly observed in the evening with a
toast by NYCB director Peter Martins. In the intermission after The
Beethoven Seventh, I overheard one woman telling another: "I think he would
have liked it." Tharp's new ballet couldn't have had a better tribute.