BWW Reviews: Twyla Tharp Marries Bluegrass and Ballet
Last Thursday, April 10, BAM presented a one-night-only program featuring North Carolina bluegrass band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the world premiere of Twyla Tharp's Cornbread Duet. The duet, sandwiched between two musical sets by the Drops, was inspired by the band's unique sound and featured New York City Ballet principals Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild.
Though bluegrass and ballet may seem like an unlikely pair, Tharp capitalized on the ability of her dancers to transition from the idiosyncratic structures of Stravinsky to the fast fiddle rhythms of bluegrass. Fairchild's virtuosity and Peck's flying footwork perfectly capture the playful, energetic dynamic of the Drops' sound. The structure of the opening duet mimics the conversational quality of bluegrass, with Fairchild and Peck performing phrases of movement in canon as if in witty dialogue. Often one dancer pauses to watch the other, creating a sense of playful competition that lasts throughout the piece as Fairchild and Peck make attempts to out-dance one another.
Fairchild's solo displays a strength of Tharp's style - her integration of movements from many recognizable vocabularies into a unified whole. Tharp does not neglect Fairchild's technical capabilities within this integration - he seamlessly transitions from a clogging sequence into a la seconde turns as if the two have always existed side by side.
Peck's charm transforms into serious acting chops in "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?," a bluesy, highly rhythmic piece that allows her moments of powerful storytelling. Shifting between following the quick fiddle and the sweet, sultry voice of Rhiannon Giddens, the Drops' front woman, Peck performs impossibly rapid petite allegros next to long, expansive movements. Occasionally, Fairchild wanders onstage - the "man" who has wronged Peck - and teases her, tapping his heel with his thumbs in his invisible belt loops with nonchalance typical of Tharp's work.
The penultimate movement, performed to the lyric-less "Genuine Negro Jig," contrasts the others with its aggressive pulse and haunting fiddle line. The song does not suggest the playfulness and incorporation of popular social dance vocabularies as the other movements throughout the piece do. Instead, Peck and Fairchild abandon their friendly rivalry for sultry partnering, at times having the eerie quality of seeming to be in slow motion.
Cornbread Duet evokes the spirit of the South and the culture of bluegrass by creating dynamic relationships with each piece of music and blending the enduring aspects of Tharp's technique with new innovations particular to bluegrass, and is a testament to Tharp's unstoppable creative force.
Photo Credit: Rahav Segev