Tharp, and a cat playing with a dead mouse

Twyla Tharp's "Noir' by UArts

4 minute read
Tharp: Giving the audience new eyes.
Tharp: Giving the audience new eyes.
The great innovation of Twyla Tharp's Noir is that it allows the audience to view the world she creates on stage with the eyes of Eternity and Death. It's the world as Freud described it: civilized and polite on the surface but ruled, in fact, by the two drives that (according to him) dominate the subconscious: erotic desire and aggression unto the death.

Five dancers in black, through a series of vignettes, embody these drives, repeatedly enacting the same Agatha Christie-like tale of lust and murder to violin duets of Bela Bartok. Four of the five seem identifiable to me— the femme fatale, the wife, the husband, and the rival— and they represent, according to the program notes, a "society."

Dancing about and among them, indifferent to the women and men with their lusts and fatal longings, is Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, in bright red unitard and the only one wearing pointe shoes. Persephone rarely deigns to make eye contact with the humans she dances among. Nonetheless she sees. What she sees, I repeat, Tharp transfers into the eyes of the audience.

Not what she sees, but how

This becomes certain from a crucial event toward the end of the piece. Persephone makes one of her sporadic interventions into human affairs, cutting the throats of four of the dancers. The remaining dancer sits in a chair, frantically hiding from her behind a magazine. The audience sees this and presumes Persephone does not, since her back is to the man. Suddenly he falls from the chair, dead. She has seen him, exactly as the audience has seen him, though without looking. Once the audience realizes this, we can piece the dance together, for its essence lies not just in what, but also in how Persephone sees.

How she sees "“"“ what the audience has seen all along "“"“ is the dance equivalent of time-lapse photography. With the sped-up choppiness of a silent movie, femme fatale kisses man, is rejected by man, man primps for next seduction, femme fatale moves to other man, all within a few bars of music that are days or months or centuries, according to Persephone Standard Time. At one point Tharp literally rewinds the piece and has the betrayal and seduction danced backwards.

Human lust, as seen through death's eyes

The fragmented vignettes are increasingly compressed until the arc from seduction to abandonment to new partner is danced as a mere time blip, observed with detached disdain from the periphery of Persephone's mind's eye. For this reason, the comic tenor of the piece is correct. Through death's eyes, human lusts "“"“ and everything the endless generations do to achieve those lusts and to eliminate those who obstruct the path to their fulfillment"“"“ is a farce. Persephone dances through human events, which lack substance. The program notes conclude with the ominous line: "For Tharp, Noir maintains the air of a cat playing with a dead mouse."

The velocity of the passage from love to betrayal, together with the duplication of the murder in each of the vignettes, suggest that the only lasting loyalty is the loyalty to drives that render loyalty impossible. Hence the title of the piece points far beyond the genre of crime novel that Tharp parodies here.

Farcical or serious?

Surely it is no accident that Tharp reverses the traditional symbolism and colors death red and lust black. Noir is a black comedy on the theme of mortal being and doing, and one of the intriguing aspects of the choreography is the way farcical gestures become the building blocks of a dance of fundamentally serious concern.

Such seriousness ought to be tragic. But Tharp insists that our folly excludes us from the loftiness that tragedy requires.

Loftiness belongs to the austere Persephone alone. Danced by Genna Baroni, she seems utterly transcendent. So I found puzzling this statement in the program notes: "Only the red figure remains slightly outside the dark world, on pointe." Why "slightly outside," when Persephone dances so thoroughly outside and beyond humans and their strivings?

The answer resides, once more, I think, in the eyes Tharp gives to the audience. They are the eyes of Persephone, yet simultaneously our own eyes as well, aware that the farcical black figures desiring and dying, in gestures comic book and overblown, are the members of the audience itself. We see, that is, much the way Kafka concluded his 1920 collection of aphorisms:

"He is thirsty, and a mere clump of bushes separates him from the spring. But he is split in two: one part of him overlooks the whole scene, sees that he is standing here and that the spring is just beside him; but the second part notices nothing, has at most an inkling that the first part sees all. Since he notices nothing, however, he cannot drink."

What, When, Where

Noir. Choreography by Twyla Tharp; music by Bela Bartok; staged by Shawn Stephens, with Jennifer Binford Johnson. University of the Arts School of Dance recital presented December 5-6, 2008 at Merriam Theater, Broad and Spruce St.

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