Review: Need Good Dances? Try Tharp

Review: Need Good Dances? Try Tharp

Twyla Tharp’s “Bach Duet” is only six minutes long. For Gibney Company’s revival of that work as part of its program at the Joyce Theater this week, five musicians accompany it, then quit for the night.

Such extravagance is the mark of a well-funded organization. But it’s the choice of Tharp that’s more significant: a sign of good taste from a troupe that often lacks it. This Gibney program, which also includes a second Tharp dance and a world premiere by Jermaine Spivey and Spenser Theberge, is an improvement over recent ones, a step in the right direction.

“Bach Duet,” made in 1974 and not performed since the mid-70s, is set to Bach’s 78th cantata, “Jesu, der du meine Seele.” Jake Tribus and Miriam Gittens stand side by side, costumed in tennis white. The dance begins when Tribus pretends to spit on the floor and rub in the spit with his foot.

That irreverent gesture is a dancer’s joke. It’s a method of increasing traction, which these dancers will need. Tharp’s dense choreography sends them every which way, independent but occasionally crossing or pulling or bumping each other. The spit move returns, at different angles, along with deadpan double takes and witticisms.

Tribus and Gittens dance with skill and elegance, but they undersell the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes so much that they barely register. They nail the steps but not quite the spirit — a common problem with this repertory company when it reaches into the past.

That’s less true of its rendition of “The Fugue,” a classic Tharp piece from 1970. Bach inspired, it is performed without music by three dancers who work through 20 variations on a 20-count theme. What makes it classic Tharp is the intricately ordered composition clothed in casualness.

For dancers, it’s a doozy: taxing the mind with reversals and retrogrades, stretching and compressing with half-time and double-time. Graham Feeny, Eddieomar Gonzales-Castillo and Eleni Loving pull off the tricky timing, suddenly veering from counterpoint to synchronicity. They also manage the shifts in dynamics: between hard footfalls and damper-pedaled soft ones; between businesslike efficiency and floating, arcing grace.

The other two selections on the program aren’t on the same level, but the dancers seem to carry lessons from Tharp into them. Yue Yin’s “A Measurable Existence” (2022) is another duet. It’s an encounter. Tribus and Jesse Obremski start side by side; then they interact and influence each other. At the end, when Tribus realizes that Obremski is gone, there’s a sense of loss.

The work isn’t helped by Rutger Zuydervelt’s synthetic score or Asami Morita’s unsubtle lighting, but the choreography has a springy quality, a freehand finesse and the tumbling, circular momentum of martial arts. The partnering is flecked with beauty, and Tribus and Obremski imbue it with a supple sensitivity.

“Remains,” the Spivey and Theberge premiere, is a semi-improvisational work for the full nine-member ensemble. The dancers periodically call out numbers, which seem to signal certain activities. Compositionally, this is closer to Trisha Brown’s 1970s experiments than to Tharp’s; so is the interjection of strung-out speech, ellipses-filled phrases like “I always wanted to be …”

The conceit is a little gimmicky, though well-executed. The speaking can be irritating, as when movements are vocally echoed with stuttering scat. But there’s also some wit, as in a duet accompanied by what sounds like overlapping interior monologues.

The gambit works in the sense that the dancers, doing their own thing, look good. Loving is especially wonderful in a long crumpling solo at the rear of the stage. In a repertory company, dancers can often seem to be trying on costumes that don’t quite fit them. In “Remains,” they look like themselves.

Gibney Dance

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan;

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