[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
January 27 - February 3, 2000

[Dance Reviews]

| reviews & features | dance performance | dance participatory | hot links |

Tharp revels

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 versatility.

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.

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1999 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.