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DVD Review

Twyla Tharp
'The Catherine Wheel'

Warner Music Vision, 2005
NTSC or PAL, Region 1 or 2,
4:3 format, 90 minutes

by John Mallinson



© Warner Music Vision

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In her autobiography (also called Push Comes to Shove) Twyla Tharp has little to say about The Catherine Wheel, except that it lost her a lot of money. It was presented as part of a Broadway show in 1981. The current DVD is of a 1982 BBC television film from the Arena series. There is an interview with a young and intense Tharp and members of the cast, followed by a reworking of the original dance piece using various televisual and computer effects - these now seeming prehistorically crude. The preamble at least gives one some understanding of her intentions and what is going on.

The work was a collaboration with David Byrne (of Talking Heads) who composed some 22 songs for it. It contrasts a dysfunctional family with Sara (Sara Rudner), the leader of a chorus of dancers, who aspires to an idea of perfection through dance. She tries to emulate a computer-modelled figure who represents St Catherine - the one who was tortured but broke the wheel rather than being broken by it. There is heavy symbolism involving pineapples which signify objects of desire and hospitality. They also have the silhouette of an exploding bomb and, when cut across, have the form of the catherine wheel. This metaphorical clunkiness is inevitably reminiscent of Monty Python's Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, which doesn't help one take any of it seriously. The episodes cut between family (with abused cat and hysterical housemaid) and Sara and her followers, between wearisome soap opera and pure dance.

The last quarter is an apotheosis called The Golden Section. It is pure loose limbed, high energy, bouncy dance performed by the cast of 12 in golden garb - quite a fireworks display. This is Tharp at her most immediately attractive and, I think, is meant to represent some pre-lapsarian state of innocence. It looks like a different work from the rest and is the only part which still gets performed the Alvin Ailey company will be performing it in November.
 


© Warner Music Vision


In 1981 this might have been called a high concept work. Unfortunately now it just seems dated, rather crude and tiresome in its seriousness. Perhaps one should not judge it harshly on the basis of this TV version: on screen it looks very cramped and some of the action is lost - it would surely be much more appealing on stage. This DVD is really for Tharp students only, though the last 15 minutes is enjoyable.


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