Dance Unlimited

Twyla Tharps’s “Three Dances” and Artifact’s Animal Farm go toe to toe this weekend

The ballet-infused, pop-tinged modern dance of the legendary Twyla Tharp rolls into Centennial Hall Sunday, in a 50th anniversary concert performed by her international dancers.

And the greedy pigs and other beasts of George Orwell's dark Animal Farm oink their way to life this weekend in an ambitious dance and live music show by Tucson's own Artifact Dance Project.

Don't worry, dance lovers. You can see both.

Animal Farm runs Thursday to Sunday at the MOCA-Tucson museum, and the Sunday show conveniently has been scheduled as a 2 p.m. matinee. Tharp's troupe goes on at 7 p.m. Sunday, so, in theory you can go both local and international in one day.


Tharp, now 75, is the choreographer of more than 160 dances. For her anniversary concert, Twyla Tharp and Three Dances, she winnowed those down to three works that give glimpses of her art over time.

"It's such a broad range," dancer Daniel Baker said last week by phone from New York, speaking at the end of a grueling day of rehearsals. One of eight dancers in the Tharp touring troupe, he'll perform in all three dances in each stop on the nine-city tour.

The concert's earliest work, "Country Dances," debuted in 1976, a decade into Tharp's choreographing career. The middle piece is "Brahms Paganini" from 1980. The newest is 2016's "Beethoven Opus 130," fresh from its debut this summer at Saratoga Springs, New York.

"Country Dances," a humorous dance for four, merges square dance with ballet and modern movement, showing off Tharp's pioneering foray into popular culture.

"It's set to songs from the American heartland," says the 28-year-old Baker, born long after the piece first saw light. "She was one of the first choreographers to use popular music."

"Brahms Paganini" reverts to classical. All of Tharp's works are athletic, Baker notes, but this dance is "so physically challenging. It's in two sections and the first section has a 12-minute solo," a daredevil passage that Tharp originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Dancer Reed Tankersley performs it in Tucson. Baker dances in the second section, a quartet that has the "most intricate partnering I've ever performed."

The new work, "Beethoven Opus 130," is set to a portion of one of the composer's late string quartets. Tharp set the work on the troupe's eight dancers as she was creating it.

"She's making it on your body," Baker says, marveling. "She pushes you out of your shell."

Baker, like many Tharp dancers, had a rigorous training in ballet. He left his home in Newcastle, Australia, at the age of 15 to study at the American School of Ballet in New York. He danced with Miami City Ballet, and then moved onto the San Francisco Ballet. But he joined Twyla Tharp Dance in 2008.

"Her movement felt at home on my body," he says. "She takes inspiration from everywhere, from jazz to hip-hop to sports to ballet and modern dance–from anything with movement."


Artifact Dance Project likes performing in unexpected downtown spaces. For the company's last show, in August, the dancers pivoted around the pillars in Artifact's warehouse studio on Toole. In the spring, they danced in the 101-year-old Scottish Rite Cathedral on Scott Avenue.

This time around they'll dance in the sprawling concrete Great Hall of MOCA-Tucson, the contemporary art museum that's in a former fire station. The big space–once a garage for fire trucks and most recently hosted gigantic obelisks in an art installation–has been transformed into a pigpen, Artifact's Ashley Bowman says, with "15 wheelbarrows of dirt," dumped on a newly built dance floor.

Animal Farm's 10 dancers will occupy this dirt set, portraying pigs, horses, chickens, a donkey and dogs.

"It's a narrative dance," explains Bowman, to be danced in the troupe's trademark contemporary style, which, like Tharp's, fuses ballet and modern. Based on the Orwell's 1945 novel, a parable about totalitarianism, the dance uses movement to tell the story of animals rising up against oppressive humans, only to be crushed by pigs turned power-mad.

"I love the book," says Bowman, who conceived the idea for the dance and shares choreography credit with Claire Hancock and Logan Moon Penisten. "I read it as a child. I grew up with Grimm's Fairy Tales, the darker stuff, and Animal Farm is dark."

It was a challenge to turn the ominous tale into a wordless dance. Bowman enlisted Dr. Kevin Justus, an art historian and musician, and the pair co-wrote a script that condenses the story into easily understandable scenes. They kept the most important characters: Napoleon, the evil ringleader pig (danced by Andrew Ranshaw); the horse Boxer (Daniel Diaz); Old Major, the boar who encourages the uprising (Penisten). Co-artistic director Hancock is Boxer's companion Clover, a kind of horse housemother to the other roiling animals.

Following Artifact's usual practice, musicians will perform live throughout the one-hour program. They'll deliver fulsome classical music–by Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and others–as a contrast to the stark modern tale. Korby Myrick, a mezzo-soprano who sings regularly with Arizona Opera and other opera companies around the country, will belt out four solo arias.

Several dozen members of the Tucson Girls Chorus, conducted by Dr. Marcela Molina, will also sing, accompanied by pianist Mary Turcotte, cellist Robert Marshall and violinist Grace Kawamura. The musicians will also do purely instrumental numbers.

With all these performers, plus the temporary pigsty theater-in-the-round, there will be room for only about 100 audience members.

Bowman is delighted that Animal Farm will merge dance, voice, instrumentals and an innovative set, all in an art museum.

It's not just a dance concert, she says. "It's an art installation."

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