Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tharp's "The Catherine Wheel," the Pineapple as Metaphor

Kansas City Ballet dancers in The Golden Section, photo by Steve Wilson

Review of filmed performance of Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel (1981), set to music by David Byrne.

When is a pineapple just a pineapple? Not when Twyla Tharp is using it in a psychodrama about the disintegration of the nuclear family, the shallowness of modern (post-modern) life, and the exploitation of nuclear power. The pineapple - yellow on the inside like the sun (get it, energy!), shaped like a grenade (get it, destruction!), and a traditional gift to a family in a new home (get it, energy and destruction in the home!!!). If you think these metaphors are silly, the large narrative section of The Catherine Wheel is not for you.

For myself, there are all sorts of fruit that carry semi-relevant connotations - one has to be careful with watermelons for instance (racist), apples (the fruit of temptation, unless you are down with the quince argument), pomegranates (Persephone AND the Church), even strawberries (if you are a child of the 80s, you know that there was nothing quite as delectable as the smell of Strawberry Shortcake dolls). And vegetables are just rife with alternate meanings. But pineapples? Only meaningful if you are Carmen Miranda, and it seems, Twyla Tharp. (I really think Gilbert and Sullivan found "Pineapple Poll" to be a funny alliteration and nothing more.)

Twyla Tharp received training in a wide range of dance styles including ballet, jazz, flamenco, and modern. A 1964 graduate of Barnard College, she danced briefly with Paul Taylor's company before starting to choreograph her own dances, breaking down dance to the steps that she felt were most important and experimenting with those moves and sound in constructing her idea of performance. This experimental phase ended fairly early for her, and by the mid-70s she was comfortably working in her own style that combined jazz, ballet, modern, and that special ingredient most associated with her: the use of everyday gestures, like idiomatic expressions, in "high culture" contexts. She has a gift for capturing what's relevant at a cultural time point and using it as an inside joke in her works. She has used street graffitti, break-dancing, Jane Fonda aerobics, surfer style, and numerous other pop culture creations, often straightforwardly so that some of her works appear as time capsules of American pop culture.

However, that does not diminish Tharp's clear gifts as a choreographer. She knows style and the language of movement, and her own style, featuring jerky stops and starts, flattened torsos with arms akimbo while legs do highly sophisticated kicks and toe taps, is quite recognizable if one has seen a previous work of hers. Tharp will use ballet's version of the golden mean, an attitude (knee at 90 degree angle, thigh and calf at right angles with the leg at a perfect right angle from the body), as a casual gesture, drawing attention to its power but using it alongside an absurdity (arms casually held at the side or waving in the air). She doesn't make fun of the ballet position; she is completely serious about it and therein lies her wit as a dancemaker (the charm is in the everyday gestures and cultural references).

The Catherine Wheel is a bit different in Tharp's oeuvre in that it has a straightforward narrative. It is inspired by St. Catherine of Alexandria's quest for spiritual perfection through physical discipline (and if you have read Tharp's 1993 autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, you can see that she is a consummate perfectionist, as is indicated by this quote: "I had to become the greatest choreographer of my time. That was my mission, and that's what I set out to do"). Tharp's understanding of St. Catherine's vision sounds fairly gnostic ('leaving aside the body to gain greater knowledge'), but this is Tharp's vision of perfection, and St. Catherine just happens to be a means to an end. It also gives her a chance to pontificate about pineapples.

Triangles, perfection, Pineapples, and grenades

Like the first Catherine Wheel exploded, injuring the pagans and sparing the life of St. Catherine, so too can the pineapple (a nickname for a grenade, but grenade comes from the word pomegranate...oh nevermind) explode, causing destruction. And the spiky leaves on a pineapple - don't they resemble the pointed spikes on a Catherine Wheel? Throw in some stuff about connection to energy and the atomic bomb, and graphics morphing a Catherine Wheel into a pineapple, and then into a bomb, and there you have it. As in almost all things, Tharp is completely serious about the implications of the pineapple. I was prepared to treat the pineapple as an absurdist symbol, a theatrical device, but Tharp thoroughly warned me of its hidden meanings - pineapple portents - so that I had to know that fruit is sometimes more than meets the eye.

And so it begins - a golden glowing pineapple handed down from on high to dancers backlit from behind a scrim. "Take a look, these people are savages!" sings/talks David Byrne on the recorded soundtrack. They clearly cannot handle the pineapple. And so we have a mock family, Mother and Father in a state of modern couple's anxiety but dancing a rather sweet adagio until the pineapplecomes along and knocks Father on the back of the head. Father goes off to rape the family dog; Mother does a tap-dance routine complete with the begging for money bit that will be situationally reprised when she pimps out Daughter to a suitor, and then seduces the suitor herself. The maid looks on in horror. Members of the family try to dance together, but the most success they can ever have is 2 out of 3 dancing the same steps to the same rhythm. The pineapple grows bigger and bigger in each scene (is it being fed by the increased disorder of the family?). A preacher lectures us from the soundtrack. A chorus backlit from behind the scrim provides "commentary." The family engages in WWF-style wrestling from behind the scrim, the pineapple gets hauled here and there, and St. Catherine, played by Sara Rudner, looks in horror at the devices of her torture as she tries to reach a state of perfection (this is an amazing performance from Rudner). Finally, release. The suitor tears apart the now huge pineapple in the presence of Mother, bathing himself in styrofoam chunks (mmm, pineapple juice is yummy; I really want some pineapple-orange juice.) Now the maid, as the societal conscience in the bourgeoisie household, screams and stutters in horror, making an array of disgusted faces. The violated dog kills Father, someone else (Daughter and the suitor?) kills Mother, and torn up plastic wastebaskets in red, green, and yellow colors start to fly on the stage (so does an aluminum pie tin). We live in a plastic, meaningless world, full of waste? Thank goodness St. Catherine can come along to hold all the remnants of wastebaskets and pineapple in her arms, and transform them into a high energy, gold-strewn dance. (More on the Golden Section in a moment.)

Does this sound absurd? Well, it is. There is no drama here; we aren't even treated to (spared by) an inside joke or two. Even the well-used theatrical conceits (a woman tap-dancing across a stage for money; people dressed up in layers and layers of clothing as if they are out-of-work performers on the vaudevillian circuit) are so straightforward they have no meaning other than what Tharp seems to want to indicate as an amorphous emptiness. And plasticky-ness. And then there's that stupid pineapple. It's not often that one watches dance and feels one's self getting dumber.

The welcome respite, over an hour into this mess, is the Golden Section. (The Golden Section has become its own, well, section, and is still performed separate from the other parts of The Catherine Wheel, especially by ballet companies wanting some Tharpian action.)

(Alvin Ailey dancers in The Golden Section, photo by Paul Kolnik)

Freed from the constraints of the life of the pineapple (and with Tharp free from having to move the narrative anywhere), the dancers, now dressed in gold, enter into a dance of incredible energy, as if they were particles on the surface of the sun. Whereas there was disorder in the movements of the family in the previous sections, now the dancers can move in syncopation, 1, 2, 3. Some literally become Catherine Wheels, rolling across the stage, their legs and arms the spokes as the curved body of another is the wheel. But mostly they jump, crackle with energy, and jog when they aren't taking flight or catapulting someone else into the air. "This is perfection," Tharp seems to be saying: unleashed energy fed through the movements of dancers into coherency and meaning. "This is the first day; this is the second day," Byrne intones. For the first time, Tharp effectively utilizes the rhythms that Byrne has created (previously, she just followed the disconnects and words), and unlike many dances, where rhythm means in and out, like breathing, she uses it to keep a steady, amped-up flow. Dance like this is no longer organic - it is superhuman, and it is that state beyond human experience that Tharp seems to be invoking in this final part. It has little to do with St. Catherine of Alexandria (supernatural is different from superhuman, and participation in the energies of God is not what Tharp has in mind) or with pineapples (even though they are golden and can be cut up into sections). It's rather the call for mindlessness so that the body can participate in E = mc2. The dance is mass-energy transfer; we all become similar in the heat of nuclear fusion. The science of creation leads to the science of destruction, and Tharp only makes sense of it at the end.

A final note: the recording I viewed is widely available from Kultur, and fairly bad - dancers are cut off at the waist, the camera focuses on only one area of the stage while things are going on all over the stage, and so forth. One wishes Tharp, as director, could have loosened her grip and let her stage production play out on screen.


Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Thank you for this review. I was always entranced by this work, but maybe it was just the Gold Section of it. I suppose when I saw it originally, I just dismissed the story as so much postmodern mess. (Just proof of my mental laziness: when I don't understand something, I just ignore it. Nasty habit, I know.) I also think that many parts of the Byrne soundtrack are memorable. (I own it now.)

Would you say that Tharp's style usually works in combining high art gestures and everday gestures in her works? I have only seen a few and would like to know more about it.

axegrinder said...

I have never seen the Catherine Wheel but have a live version of Byrne's song "What a Day that Was" that I listen to all the time.

I might have to see about picking up the soundtrack.