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Twyla Tharp & Don Quixote: A Reflection

Hubbard Street Dance in Tharp's Scarlatti.
Hubbard Street Dance in Tharp's Scarlatti.
By Todd Rosenberg

Over the past few days, I’ve had the opportunity to view what many consider two historic moments in Chicago dance: a ferociously hyped world premiere by Twyla Tharp for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Yuri Possokhov’s new production of Don Quixote for the Joffrey Ballet. Though I found both experiences fairly enjoyable, I did not leave feeling transported or even inspired. Horror of horrors, I’m sure a lot of people would reply – how dare you not work yourself into a near-rabid frenzy over the indisputable genius before you…particularly that of the irreproachable Tharp? But I have to go with my heart and honestly say that, as an impassioned lover of and longtime advocate for dance, I was not moved in any kind of profound way.

Let’s start with Scarlatti, Tharp’s characteristically playful-intricate response to a series of keyboard sonatas by Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti. Extracting the structural essence of the compositions, the choreographer proceeds to bring to the constantly shifting notes a flush of unfettered humanity. But that can be said of most Tharp works: At the same time she elevates the possibilities for dance, she knocks them down a bit to make the movements real and relatable. Here we watch 12 highly accomplished dancers leap, jog, skip, run a relay race, play a leap frog-like game, spiral, reverse, appear to be blown by the wind, push their endurance to the edge, turn into rubberbands, relax into a blink of mime, then clown around some more. Throughout, hints of Restoration-era formality are interrupted by seemingly incongruous pugilistic riffs.

So, after all that, why did it leave me cold? Perhaps Scarlatti felt, to me, like a bundle of Tharpisms rather than a fresh and original glimpse into the human condition. Though whimsical and undeniably challenging, it never effectively crafted relationships or drew out an especially witty idea. Hence, the dancers appeared to engage in stilted self-smirking calisthenics. And on this note, I must reference Jiri Kylian’s masterful Sechs Tanze (also in Hubbard Street’s repertoire) in which the pedestrian and technical prowess join hands to turn Mozart’s music into a sly exposure of daily human role playing.

In one of the greatest paradoxes of my dance-viewing career I found that, with Tharp’s Scarlatti, there was almost too much to take in yet it seemed oddly insubstantial.

But Scarlatti suffered from a more seriously looming distraction that directly influenced my lack of enthusiasm: Norma Kamali’s dreadful costumes that looked like a patchwork of scraps from a circus trunk. The designer’s original sketches, by the way, were much more appealing. Hubbard Street’s gorgeous and committed ensemble were in no way given the respect they deserve by being forced to cavort on stage in garish, dizzying mismatched clingy prints in ugly shades of ruffled gray, white, black and neon yellow. It’s truly an understatement to say that the costumes got in the way of the dance.

On a positive note, I wish to commend the fortitude and versatility of the Hubbard Street dancers: Garrett Anderson, Jesse Bechard, Christian Broomhall, Jacqueline Burnett, Meredith Dincolo, Kellie Epperheimer, Jason Hortin, Penny Saunders, David Schultz, Kevin Shannon, Jessica Tong, and Robyn Mineko Williams. Their integrity could be seen and felt despite Scarlatti’s aesthetic challenges.

As a great fan of the full-length ballet, Don Quixote, I was intrigued by the Joffrey Ballet’s fleshing out of the Marius Petipa original via former Bolshoi dancer Yuri Possokhov and a desire to make the titular knight-errant’s presence more strongly felt. I also was skeptical, considering that I hold Mikhail Baryshnikov’s exuberant and structurally sound version in high esteem. And though I wasn’t necessarily upset or scandalized upon seeing the latest Joffrey interpretation by Possokhov, I left with an urgent desire to view my DVD of the famed Mikhail Baryshnikov-Cynthia Harvey performance for American Ballet Theatre (filmed in 1983).

Trying to stay in touch with our overloaded technological age, the Joffrey incorporated more cinematic bells and whistles, specifically Wendall Harrington’s projections of windmills, Iberian landscapes, and the detailed Gustave Dore etchings upon which the overall tone of the production is based. While impressive, they did not spark my imagination any more than a subtle and resourceful staging would. I still prefer the dummy of Don Q falling from an on-stage windmill rather than an awkward projected version that did not function very well at the performance I attended.

Maybe I’m unduly biased because I find Baryshnikov’s take so flawless. But, regardless of my personal tastes, I believe there’s a legitimate reason why Don Quixote is merely a framing device for the delightful commedia dell’arte-style story of separated-then-reunited lovers Kitri and Basilio. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Cervantes’ novel should clearly understand the motivations for his chivalric quest. We don’t need to see the Don reading his books or calling on his rotund sidekick Sancho Panza….or roaming the Spanish countryside with his scraggly horse Rocinante (more on the horse later). It doesn’t make one’s viewing experience any more satisfactory.

And this brings me to another crucial point: Does everything need to be literally spelled out for today’s audiences? The program synopsis is so detailed it made me laugh – I mean, do we have to be told that Sancho Panza is carrying a ham or that he’s scolded by the much-abused inn keeper Lorenzo? Can’t we discern that for ourselves? Talk about stifling the imagination!

But something less tangible gnawed at me. April Daly as Kitri and Temur Suluashvili as Basilio – two generally exquisite artists of serene and regal temperaments – delivered completely flat performances. Now Daly pretty much nailed her steadily virtuosic variations; Suluashvili, on the other hand, struggled with his speed and landings. But beyond the technical skill, they generated absolutely no electricity. At no point did either dancer feel relaxed enough to flirtatiously play off the other. Instead they seemed to be steadfastly focused on getting through their variations unscathed. Subsequently, the whole experience lacked fire, soul, even joy.

The fussy mime only added to this Don Q’s one dimensionality – embodied most glaringly in Lucas Segovia’s mincing fop, Gamache. Oh, and in case we still didn’t know he was a dandy, his pink costume and shoes would help us figure that out. I’m also left with another nagging conundrum: Cynthia Von Orthal’s life-size puppet horse, Rocinante (a combination of hand mechanics and two dancers underneath). I instantly loved him and his sweet face. He stole every scene he was in. However, he wasn’t in very many scenes. So all the work put into this new character seemed to be for naught. Rocinante should be on par with Picasso’s charismatic Cubist Stage Manager horse in the ballet, Parade. Here, he appeared to be a “family friendly” add on.

I have only one more concern, and it regards the Joffrey Ballet’s choice of Don Quixote. Why? I understand the company’s need to be a more classical presence in a city without a world-class homegrown ballet company (Ballet Chicago is semi-professional). But, really, why? The Joffrey always stood out for its progressive, contemporary works and for its fresh reconstructions of the equally progressive Diaghilev-era ballets, and the Ashtons and Tudors – not to mention brand-new choreography. If the Joffrey must present story ballets, the company is best suited to streamlined, economical offerings: namely, those by the aforementioned Ashton and Tudor and, most significantly, John Cranko (The Taming of the Shew, Romeo and Juliet, and Eugene Onegin). Now, Eugene Onegin – that would have been a stellar, and more appropriate, season opener.

After all, the Joffrey has cornered the market on The Nutcracker in Chicago. As far as the full-length narratives of the Petipa age go, that should suffice.



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