Review: Twyla Tharp Looks Back, With an Eye on the Future

A few minutes into “All In,” a new ballet by Twyla Tharp that had its premiere at City Center on Wednesday, a surprise scurried in from the wings. Up to that point, the evening had been a showcase for stars: current and former members of New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theater. But here, like a corps de ballet, were six lesser-known dancers, ages 14 to 21, who could be stars of the future. In black shorts, white T-shirts and ballet slippers, they looked like students dressed for class. If they had a name, it might be “Twyla: The Next Generation.”

At 80, Tharp is looking back, unearthing and refurbishing gems from her catalog of more than 160 works. And she is clearly looking forward, too, planting the seeds for her choreography to live on, or at least suggesting, through the imagery of that young ensemble — who at times during “All In” literally follow in the footsteps of the luminaries onstage — that it will.

The dazzling “All In,” for a cast of 14 dancers, concludes the New York City Center program “Twyla Now,” which begins with a series of more intimate works: three very different duets that reach back into the past and later resurface, as familiar fragments, in the finale. The evening’s duo-centric structure affords a close look at partnerships as a kind of choreographic foundation.

In some ways, it’s a back-to-basics concept on the stage where, nearly half a century ago, Tharp leapt to new levels of recognition with her trailblazing “Deuce Coupe,” widely heralded as the first “crossover ballet” — combining elements of ballet, modern dance and social dances of the 1960s. The most captivating of the duets on Wednesday were the newest and oldest: “Second Duet,” a premiere constructed from Tharp’s 1991 improvisations with the dancer Kevin O’Day; and “Pergolesi,” which she made for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1992.

Robert Fairchild, left, and Sara Mearns, the dancers in “Pergolesi,” never make physical contact.Credit…Paula Lobo

At a time when young ballet choreographers, perhaps more than ever, are scrutinizing and rejecting the gender conventions of classical partnering, these works remind us that Tharp has been at it for a while, toppling any notions that men should lift and women should be lifted. In “Second Duet,” danced with tender recklessness by Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer of the Ailey company, each partner aggressively resists and surrenders to the other. Thomas Larcher’s “Mumien,” a foreboding composition for piano and cello (played live, like much of the program’s music, by members of the Knights) pulls the tension between them tighter.

What at first seems like a violent relationship reveals itself to be a test of wills, closer to a game than a fight. Harris, in a wide stance, fists clenched, appears to press into the floor with every ounce of her strength, foiling Gilmer’s attempts to pick her up. Later, Gilmer collapses backward into her arms, leaving her to maneuver his full, exhausted weight. In a moment of foreshadowing, the young ensemble materializes behind a scrim and leaves a boombox behind. A sudden switch to recorded music, Aztec Camera’s “Do I Love You?” ushers in an even more daring and demanding phase of the dance.

In contrast to the grappling of “Second Duet,” the dancers in “Pergolesi” — Sara Mearns of City Ballet and Robbie Fairchild, a former principal with that company — never make physical contact. The tall order they’ve been given, to take on roles originated by living legends, comes with a twist: Mearns dances Baryshnikov’s part, and Fairchild dances Tharp’s. Both are stunning, even if at times the playful, joking attitude between them feels forced. (It’s easier to reconstruct movement than the personality and chemistry of a dance’s originators.)

Dressed in identical, all-white costumes (sleeveless shirts, pants, jazz shoes), the two occupy a level playing field. In Tharp’s seamless mix of breezy pedestrian movement, virtuosic feats and cheeky physical comedy — a laborious chugging arabesque; the landing of a pirouette held for just a few too many beats — the work ignites both the brilliance and the humanity of its new interpreters.

“All In” starts where the evening began: with a duet between Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia of City Ballet, who opened the show with a scintillating rendition of “Cornbread” (2014), to songs by Rhiannon Giddens’s former string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The cast of “All In,” which is set to Brahms’s Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in F minor (Op. 120), expands to include everyone we’ve seen so far. Joining them are the lucid Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell of American Ballet Theater, plus the winning young ensemble: Brady Farrar, Savannah Kristich, Zoe Liebold, Jaiden Galán Roman, Alycia Williams and William Woodward.

Tharp is known for pushing dancers to the edge, and befitting the title, the dancers of “All In” give their all — and more — to the point of a few exciting near mishaps. In a display of their most impressive tricks, the ensemble breaks out back flips and six o’clock extensions. But even when they take a back seat to their older counterparts, their energy seems to fuel everyone involved.

In a recent PBS documentary, Tharp said that “Deuce Coupe,” famous for its Beach Boys soundtrack and graffiti backdrop, “turned out to be about the spirt and adventure of teenagers.” Here, too, they are the soul of the dance.

Twyla Now

Through Sunday at New York City Center;

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