Review: Need Good Dances? Try Tharp

Twyla Tharp’s “Bach Duet” is only six minutes long. For Gibney Company’s revival of that work as part of its program at the Joyce Theater this week, five musicians accompany it, then quit for the night.

Such extravagance is the mark of a well-funded organization. But it’s the choice of Tharp that’s more significant: a sign of good taste from a troupe that often lacks it. This Gibney program, which also includes a second Tharp dance and a world premiere by Jermaine Spivey and Spenser Theberge, is an improvement over recent ones, a step in the right direction.

“Bach Duet,” made in 1974 and not performed since the mid-70s, is set to Bach’s 78th cantata, “Jesu, der du meine Seele.” Jake Tribus and Miriam Gittens stand side by side, costumed in tennis white. The dance begins when Tribus pretends to spit on the floor and rub in the spit with his foot.

That irreverent gesture is a dancer’s joke. It’s a method of increasing traction, which these dancers will need. Tharp’s dense choreography sends them every which way, independent but occasionally crossing or pulling or bumping each other. The spit move returns, at different angles, along with deadpan double takes and witticisms.

Tribus and Gittens dance with skill and elegance, but they undersell the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes so much that they barely register. They nail the steps but not quite the spirit — a common problem with this repertory company when it reaches into the past.

That’s less true of its rendition of “The Fugue,” a classic Tharp piece from 1970. Bach inspired, it is performed without music by three dancers who work through 20 variations on a 20-count theme. What makes it classic Tharp is the intricately ordered composition clothed in casualness.

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