Cultures dancing

Eleanor Brickhill compares performances by Tharp! and Dance Exchange

Matt Rivera, Jennifer Howard, Sandra Stanton in Tharp!

Matt Rivera, Jennifer Howard, Sandra Stanton in Tharp!

The idea of comparing Twyla Tharp and her new company Tharp! with Russell Dumas’ new work, Cargo Cult, makes sense, firstly in terms of their shared influences—both have continuing and evolving relationships with ballet and the American avant-garde—and then the way those influences have been quite differently deployed.

Dumas’ artistic directorship of Dance Exchange began not so long after leaving Twyla Tharp’s first company and the rich American environment of the 70s. Since then, he has developed Dance Exchange as an ongoing and expanding network (both national and international) of dancers and other artists. Tharp’s focus seems somewhat narrower than it used to be, now firmly in the territory of mainstream American ballet, with her current company of all-new “non-professional” dancers.

It’s been said about both of them that, while it’s taken people many years to appreciate the kind of work they offered, when it finally happened, it wasn’t the work that had changed, but the audience. It was Tharp’s early work of the 60s and 70s that made her reputation: the detailed and complex choreographic exploration bringing a provocative sense of combat into a warm-fuzzy new dance environment. But the programs brought to The Sydney Festival, while resting on that reputation, seemed largely to be made of different stuff, and one might wonder whether the audience’s youth and tumultuous applause was for the work or the reputation, given that it is unlikely they had seen work made 30 years ago.

Dumas’ Cargo Cult, on the other hand, was built entirely from the original—being an accumulation and development of material which has been worked on over the years by several generations of dancers since his directorship began.

Something else which is often said of seminal artists (including Twyla Tharp and Martha Graham) is that the dances they choreograph are designed to make better dancers. In other words, their dancers do not train first in order for the choreographer to come along and use that training to make their dances. Instead, the dancers train by developing and embodying ways of being and thinking about the world directly from the choreographer, and this feeling about movement is the actual ‘technique’. That’s the theory, anyway.

The title of Dance Exchange’s new work, Cargo Cult, is not mere fancy. It says something about culture and its structure, and particularly our cultural history, and how we have often transplanted ideas from the place where they originated into our ‘foreign’ context. Our theatres are built to house international artists, whose ‘product’ we ‘acquire’ without understanding the reason it has developed the way it has. We mimic the aesthetics without understanding the cultural infrastructures which create them, and in our lack of understanding the ideas become cultish and degraded, being cut off at the roots. Most of Dumas’ dancers have been required to study overseas, not just the ‘steps’ or ‘styles’ of particular artists, but the cultural contexts in which those artists create their work, to find out how and why the ideas which we might have cherished for generations, have evolved.

Trevor Patrick in Cargo Cult

Trevor Patrick in Cargo Cult

The eight dancers in Cargo Cult bring not just their phrases and steps to the work, but individual processes. While material is drawn from a shared choreographic history of Dumas’ previous works, and a common physical understanding, the dancers’ ages and professional backgrounds vary greatly. Material is worked in such different ways in the three almost simultaneous duets and two solos, that each seems like a separate line of thought expressing distinct individuality, while retaining a deep aesthetic unity.

Cultural embodiment is, in part, what Cargo Cult endeavours to explore. At one point, we see Cath Stewart’s soft, pouted lips and up-tilted, relaxed jaw whispering, and although we can’t hear the words, we know it is French because the feel of the language is clearly visible. In fact, Stewart’s entire 50 minute solo, including this snatch of speech, was created in France amidst a polyglot group of people in which features of cultural difference and similarity were of great import. Perhaps it’s drawing a long bow to say that just as a specific cultural context provides a matrix by which language and feeling is understood, so does the context in which dance is made. But the point is that it is the embodiment of context in which feeling and gesture develop together which goes towards creating more interesting dancing than simply learning imported steps, or laying them on culturally untuned bodies.

The imported artistry of Tharp! could be a case in point. Critical comment was mostly luke-warm: too clean, too balletic, too naive, too commercial, all of that. Not what we have come to expect from Tharp. Unfortunately I was unable to see the second program which featured probably the two more interesting pieces, the oldest work, Fugue, and the newest, Roy’s Joys, in which her old style was reputedly more in evidence, although ‘compromised’ somewhat by the dancers’ youth.

People said it wasn’t the dancers’ fault that the works lacked substance—especially the three pieces in the first program, Heroes, Sweet Fields and 66. Must it have been the choreography then? The publicity for Tharp! reminds us constantly that these dancers have ‘raw’ talent, chosen from schools rather than professional circles, which presumably means they have an as yet unadulterated ballet school training, and are young enough not to have developed injuries, affectations or idiosyncrasies which need to be worked around. They also probably do not have the depth of experience to understand how to play with rhythm or movement so that it comes alive, or to be able to interpret action in any way other than through a foursquare ballet school demeanour, which flattens choreographic nuance, should it exist, into the prescribed patterns for which ballet schools are famous. And if the dances have been designed to make them more interesting dancers, it will take a few more years yet.

Certainly it seemed Heroes was made like a well-crafted demonstration work for graduating dancers, with high legs and multiple tours abounding, of which the drive and execution were impeccable. It may be mere hearsay that Tharp once said you know that you’ve grown up when you have no more heroes. In this case, the heroes she gave us were a team of three spotless, epically unmoved young men against whose torsos young girls hurled themselves mercilessly. Perhaps it was simply a comment about youth.

Sweet Fields and 66 both made what I interpreted as unmistakable references to some particularly American cultural icons. Shaker hymns, and simple vocal chants in open fourths and fifths accompany the short dances in Sweet Fields. To say this work is simple is not just a polite way to say nothing is going on. A pale circular spotlight underpins the symmetry of pairs in processional patterns and the simple walking steps of a folk tradition. Running, rolling, leaping and rhythmic variations in lines, squares and circles provide the bare structure which seeps through at the bottom of a transparent filmy balletic style and a brief touch of Graham; an aged brown filigree pinned to the preserved bones of tradition.

66 on the other hand, went for the bluster and chintz of popular Americana: Route 66, Buster Keaton, Sunset Strip, Hollywood musicals, Disneyland, the ‘coolth’ of vibraphone, denim and basketball, too absurd for words.

But then, one might say to oneself, this is our Twyla! She, a choreographer capable of being in full control of what she wants us to see, must be creating something this facile for a reason. But what, if not to point out that these are American traditions born of a very particular cultural climate? This is not Europe, and not Australia, even though we once adopted much of the imagery as our own. Now it all seems faded and tacky, and the dancers’ youthful slickness is unpersuasive. Perhaps it’s just that Tharp is sick of being a hero, and has opted for the more substantial comforts of fame.

Cargo Cult, Dance Exchange, The Performance Space, December 1997; Tharp!, the Capitol Theatre, Sydney Festival, January 20-25, 1998

RealTime issue #23 Feb-March 1998 pg. 36

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1998
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