THARP/DYLAN = OIL/WATER
by Harvey Perr
The Times They Are A-Changin'
opened October 26, 2006
at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Twyla Tharp’s dancers bounce, tumble, skip rope, skip rope within a skip rope, toss oversize balls around, roll onto the stage pulling the curtain on with their teeth, somersault on trampolines, walk the high wire, walk on stilts, and do, in fact, everything you’d expect circus acrobats to do. And they do it in the trademark Tharp style which is loose, limber, and loopy; and yet they never soar but always land on their feet with a thud. To paraphrase Bob Dylan – to whose songs they perform these feats – they are moving and yet they are standing still. The circus in which they are stranded is called “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” but it might just as well be titled “The Most Well-Known Songs of Bob Dylan’s Youth Plus Two Bonus Tracks from His Later Period Sung and Danced in Clown Face.” It is Ms. Tharp’s attempt to do for Mr. Dylan what she did for Billy Joel in “Movin’ Out.” Dylan has moved on since writing most of these songs, and has become a profoundly mature artist in his later years. Tharp has taken a few steps backwards.
There are moments, in the “Maggie’s Farm” section, for one, and in “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for another, when Tharp’s choreographic patterns begin to take hold and create the kind of originality she is clearly striving for. But they soon fall apart and we are left with lazily repetitious movements that force the dancers to either strike poses or flounder. In “Masters of War,” the male dancers come forward boldly as if they were in some music video, but in a matter of seconds, it is apparent that they are in support of a star who never appears (Madonna, anyone?). In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” they look as if they walked into the first act finale of “Hair” with their clothes on and then confront the audience, anyway, as if they were indeed naked.
Let’s set matters straight. Tharp is, despite this serious misstep, one of our best choreographers, and the beauty of “Movin’ Out” was that she created a full-length ballet that awakened many Billy Joel fans to what must have seemed a brand new art form. She in no way condescended to that audience, but gave them instead a thrillingly effective way of listening anew to Joel’s songs. The Joel songs were sung – and they were sung brilliantly – visibly but marginally. Our eyes, concentrated on the stage, were on the dancers. And we discovered the quintessential Tharp dancer in John Selya, someone whose every movement was the embodiment of the unique Tharp style. Selya is back with us; he has remained loyal to Tharp, but this time Tharp has not rewarded Selya by providing him with anything fresh or demanding to dance. He has become a member of the ensemble; a dominant one, to be sure, but a member of the ensemble, just the same.
It is this reviewer’s contention that the success of “Movin’Out” had less to do with Tharp’s conception or direction, but almost exclusively with her choreography. The failure of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” lies in her decision to become more of a director. First, she puts her dancers in the background and places her singers in center stage. This encourages us to pay attention to the lyrics, to the order in which they are placed, and to the continuity they provide, which becomes a more and more thankless task as the evening progresses. Secondly, there is the question of the evening’s themes, which exist in some free-form play of her mind. “Moby Dick” is not mentioned, but there is a circus owner named Captain Ahrab [sic], who has what looks like a removable plastic leg, walks with a limp and is clearly leading his circus crew on some self-destructive journey. If there is a white whale who eventually devours him, he remains off stage, although his circus wagon does get torn apart by the circus crew, in a “Freaks”-like mutiny (in conjunction with some members of the technical staff who appear this once and never again). Thom Sesma, who plays Captain Ahrab, sings well but never in “character;” which more than suggests some sort of disconnect between actor and singer, something a director should have noticed and corrected. At any rate, this Captain Ahrab has a son named Coyote (gamely played, at the performance I attended – just one night prior to its official opening – by understudy Jason Wooten) who gets kicked around a lot, but is clearly triumphant in the end because it is now his circus – one that is bound, one hopes, on a less self-destructive journey. There is a girl (Lisa Brescia), too (this being Broadway, not Melville), who starts off in a bad relationship with the father and ends up in a good one with the son. These three spend most of their time trying to keep out of the way of the dancers but manage, instead, to achieve the reverse effect: they do very much get in the way of the dancers. What we want, ultimately, is less – much less – of Tharp’s conception and direction, and more of her choreography.
The final effect is that this is not a failure of talent but of imagination. And, one suspects, a failure due to opportunism, the desire to succeed where one has succeeded before, but this time without the artistic focus of the first time.
To be fair, Dylan, whose purity of vision and sense of integrity in this cockeyed world are second to none, has said that he finds this to be the best presentation of his songs that he has ever seen on a stage. It seems that even Mr. Dylan can be bought for a song.