Arts Desk

The Washington Ballet and Twyla Tharp Do It Their Way

Twyla Tharp and The Washington Ballet make a good pair.

Tharp, a choreographer with a national reputation who’s been creating pieces for decades, is generally lumped into the modern dance category, but she’s worked with ballet companies throughout her career. And she’s known as stickler for precise technique, the kind that only comes from years of ballet training. The Washington Ballet, meanwhile, seems to be at its best when its dancers are engaged in lively, not-quite-classical choreography that really moves, rather than the elegant lines and virtuoso tricks that ballet is often known for.

Both are hybrids, which means that the company is in its element performing Tharp’s choreography. That was apparent Thursday night at The Washington Ballet’s all-Tharp evening, TwylaTharp: AllAmerican at the Kennedy Center. It’s not a perfect show; the first piece in the collection never really takes off. But the other two works are stirring and lovely enough to make up for earlier gaps.

The evening starts with "Push Comes to Shove," the weakest piece in the trio. Created in 1976 for American Ballet Theater with Baryshnikov dancing the lead, the work has already been performed once by The Washington Ballet, two years ago. It's not a great fit. The virtuosic technique that a company like ABT has in spades—leaps by the men that seem to hover in the air, a certain sparkling grace on the part of the women—is lacking here, and the performance felt empty for that reason.

But part of that may be the dance itself, which is a sendoff of classical ballet set to a mix of Haydn and ragtime music. It was acclaimed when first performed, but these days, the piece comes across as endless movement with little discernable purpose.

The second piece illustrates Tharp’s impressive range. "Surfer at the River Styx" really is modern dance—or maybe you can call it contemporary ballet; they overlap—and is dark, clanging, and edgy where the earlier piece is light and classical. The story is a loose interpretation of Euripides’ Bacchae, featuring six dancers.

But only one of them really matters. Jared Nelson plays The Surfer, complete with cargo shorts, a loose white T-shirt, and a curly blond mop of hair. He gives the role a meaty athleticism that feels wholly male, inhabiting it with a mixture of American-dude nonchalance and boyish playfulness.

The music is, um, awesome. Deep in the orchestra pit, Donald “The Junkman” Knaack bangs away at found objects like a five-gallon bucket, an old Volvo carburetor cap, and an array of industrial cooking pots. It's not chaotic; despite their disparate sources, Knaack weaves his disparate tools into a cohesive, driving composition.

“Nine Sinatra Songs” is the last piece, and it’s both easy to like and easy to dismiss. Built of nine couples performing embellished ballroom dancing routines to various pieces by the blue eyed crooner, there’s something a little cheesy about it, a little too pleasing. Eventually, the various twirls and jumps and lifts melt together.

But each couple has a different relationship, and the fashions worn by the women (designed by Oscar de la Renta) change over time, providing a snapshot of Sinatra’s era. Little by little, the duets draw you in. Nelson, again, wears his character—a gum-chewing cad in an on-again-off-again relationship with his partner—wonderfully. By the last song, with Sinatra singing his signature ballad, “My Way,” it’s hard not to feel moved by the personalities and their various machinations crossing the stage.

"TwylaTharp: AllAmerican" runs through Sunday evening at the Kennedy Center. $20-$125.

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