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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Seriously, New York Times?

posted by on September 30 at 15:24 PM


Your review of Twyla Tharp’s new works at Pacific Northwest Ballet seems a little… disengaged. You spend most of your words on describing how the choreography looks but not what it might mean.

Tharp’s choreography has always been thick with ideas (about gender, about youth culture, about art both haute and pop, about sex and death) and to not wrestle with the ideas (or lack thereof) in two brand-new ballets by the reigning queen of dance seems a little weak. Maybe even a little irresponsible.

(The ballets: Opus 111 is a florid, ballet/kitchen-sink fusion set to Brahms; Afternoon Ball is maudlin tragedy about fucked-up street kids.)

The closest you get is in the final paragraph:

Of the pair, “Opus 111” may be the work that survives in its present form, but there is a sense that, with “Afternoon Ball,” Ms. Tharp has not quite finished exploring the dark side. Her cautionary tale points to a subject larger than dance. If Ms. Tharp is worried about the slipping away of grace and tradition, so should we all be.

You must have ideas about Tharp’s ideas—what does it mean, for example that the woman who rocked the dance world by fusing pop with avant garde with ballet has positioned herself as the defender of grace and tradition?—but you veil them.

And that “may be the work that survives in its present form” is an oblique way of saying that, in some respects, the ballet fails. Why don’t you state that plainly?

Is it because you feel an obligation to defer to an artist of Tharp’s stature? Because you’ve taken on Pacific Northwest Ballet and its young, imaginative director Peter Boal a pet project? Because you have to justify flying across the country to your editors by making the work seem more important than it is?

What gives?

For comparison’s sake, here’s The Stranger’s review, which will be out in this Thursday’s paper:

All Tharp
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Through Oct 5.

Twyla Tharp was once a daring choreographer. Four decades ago, she structurally reorganized the dance world by bringing low-falutin’ movement to high-falutin’ stages. The paradigmatic example: Deuce Coupe, a 1973 commission for the Joffrey Ballet set to the Beach Boys, with graffiti artists painting upstage during the performance. It was the world’s first ballet with a pop soundtrack.

But both of her world-premiere ballets that opened at PNB last weekend—Opus 111 (set to Brahms) and Afternoon Ball (set to minimalist Vladimir Martynov)—seem like burlesques of Tharp’s old glory. In the first dance, Tharp trots out samples from her myriad influences, presenting a Tharpean pupu platter: Broadway skips, jazzy jumps, playful gymnastics, cross-armed kicks redolent of Hungarian czardas, syncopated steps borrowed from tap dancing, and florid ballet. Opus 111 is an airy, insubstantial thing that slides right off the retinas, barely leaving an impression.

Afternoon Ball is more striking, a maudlin tragedy that casts a double gloss—one jaundiced, the other piteous—on youth culture. Three youngsters tweak out in what seems to be an alleyway. (Black walls on the stage give the piece a claustrophobic feeling.) One is a punk/metal hybrid in cutoff cargo pants, one a grunge boy in flannel. The lone girl wears fishnets and Daisy Dukes—a New York punk circa 1985. These are afflicted children: They throw punches, slip and fall, beat their heads on the floor, worm along the ground, and lapse into mindless, mechanical movements.


A fancy couple in black formal wear occasionally dances upstage, oblivious to the small apocalypse below. The lights dim, the punk/metal kid shivers and—spoiler alert!—freezes to death. (Or something.) In Tharp’s world, the kids used to be all right. Not anymore. Afternoon Ball critiques its aloof elites, but also condescends to its shivering, cartoonish urchins. (The evening’s third piece, Nine Sinatra Songs, is a series of ballroom vignettes from 1982. It is easy-listening dance. People love it.)

How crotchety. Time was, Twyla Tharp was an artist doing double duty as a radical critic, bringing Promethean fire to cold, sterile stages. But her new work feels remote and cynical—she has forgotten how to burn. BRENDAN KILEY


(It’s been a Tharpapalooza around here for the last two weeks: You can read The Stranger’s occasionally tense interview with Tharp here. And listen to it here.)

RSS icon Comments


Gotta love the Stranger bitching about someone else's dance coverage.

Snark aside, thank you for covering the Tharp show.

Posted by genevieve | September 30, 2008 3:48 PM

"redolent," Brendan? You've smelled a Hungarian czardas before? Actually, forget I asked. I may not want to know the details.

Posted by MvB | September 30, 2008 4:09 PM


Posted by julia | September 30, 2008 4:09 PM

Sometimes I wish I gave a shit about modern dance.

Sometimes I don't.

Posted by Greg | September 30, 2008 4:53 PM

I'll cut a bitch who is hatin' on the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company. I'm still in love with Godfather Drosselmeyer from the 1986 Nutcracker movie.

Posted by Y.F. | September 30, 2008 5:01 PM

I'll echo the first comment. How nice to see The Stranger suddenly develop an interest in dance.

Anyway: I listened to the interview. Your answer at the end was fantastic, and you can clearly talk criticism and theater, but you were in over your head with Tharp. Your lack of familiarity with modern dance was obvious. Get off the high horse.

Posted by Nick | September 30, 2008 6:11 PM

Just to remind everyone—we write about dance, preview dance, and suggest dance far more than anybody seems to remember. Google for stories about Velocity, On the Boards, and PNB—you'll find a big story for the Jerome Robbins revival, profiles of local choreographers, reviews, etc.

I appreciate the pleasure of a martyr complex, but seriously—we do write about dance, when something important is happening.

And the biggest obstacle to getting written about? The fact that most dance performances only happen one weekend. Managing an arts section is an exercise in triage. Run performances for multiple weekends and your chances of being written about increase dramatically.

And I'm staying on my high horse, thank you. I like it up here.

Posted by Brendan Kiley | September 30, 2008 6:32 PM

Oh my god, this is pathetic on so many levels, I wouldn't know where to begin. I pity you.

Posted by tranny | September 30, 2008 10:31 PM

Dinner with Brendan Kiley and Jen Graves - I ask you, is there a more horrifying thought in the known universe?

"Thick with ideas". Jesus H. MotherFUCKING Christ on a goddamn pogo stick. How do you people even tie your shoes in the morning?

Posted by Deep, heavy and meaningless | October 1, 2008 7:06 AM

Yeah, but people actually read the New York Times.

Posted by Cooler | October 1, 2008 7:38 AM

What about these passages from the NYT piece? Don't they say what you criticize the Times for not saying? Maybe not as overtly as you would like them to, but it does get at the subject matter, in fairness to the Times, more so than the last paragraph you say does the best job of getting at it. And how about a link to the article in your post?
"Mr. Martynov’s ruthless music has inspired Ms. Tharp to explore the younger generation, a subject she has taken on repeatedly. This time, Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, Kaori Nakamura and Olivier Wevers are street punks, ravaged by drugs and loss of purpose. This harsh snapshot of urban decay contrasts with the natural world of Brahms in “Opus 111." ... no matter how ably her dancers express their rancor and desperation through movement, they’re overcooked, drawn so boldly and instilled with so many fussy details that they become more caricatures than characters."

Posted by Jessica | October 1, 2008 9:20 AM

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