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Release: Sept. 18, 2000

(NOTE TO EDITORS: This is one in a series of stories that revisit the commissioned works that were part of the 1999-2000 Millennium Festival at the University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium. We will document how the works have developed or changed, where they have been performed, what the critics have said, and in some cases how the artists themselves gauge the works.)


Hancher-commissioned ‘Diabelli’ fits in series of Twyla Tharp Beethoven dances

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The official kickoff of the 1999-2000 Millennium Festival at the University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium was the U.S. premiere of Twyla Tharp’s "Diabelli," Sept. 17 and 18, 1999. The "Diabelli Variations," Beethoven’s final major composition for piano, was performed live on stage by Paige Hoffman; and the production also featured costumes by the noted international fashion designer Geoffrey Beene.

"Diabelli" was immediately hailed as a masterpiece after its summer 1999 world premiere in London. Ann Williams wrote in England’s Ballet magazine, "If proof was needed that Twyla Tharp is a genius of a choreographer, it was provided last night in her ‘Diabelli’ performed at the Barbican Centre."

"I was totally captivated by the seamless, enticing communication between the dancing and the playing," the critic for the Spectator wrote. "‘Diabelli’ shows clearly that her creative genius is back in full force and at its best." And Clement Crisp wrote in the Financial Times, "‘Diabelli’ is dance uncompromising, bold. . . . Tharp’s view of Beethoven is both honest and honourable and, no greater praise, illuminating."

Because "Diabelli" was performed by an ad hoc company and required a live pianist, the work was not performed many times, but it played an important role in Tharp’s development of a cycle of dances set to music by Beethoven, leading to the formation of a new Tharp company.

The cycle, which began with "Grosse Sonate" at the American Dance Festival and "Diabelli" in London, Paris and Iowa City, culminated with "Hammerklavier" and, most prominently, "Beethoven’s Seventh" for the New York City Ballet.

Tharp described two motivations for her Beethoven pieces to Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times. "I wanted to examine the Romantic material because I find the aesthetics of the 20th century hopelessly barren," she said. "So I’m going back to early Romanticism, to what was overreacted to."

Kisselgoff reported, "The second reason was her interest in ‘how Beethoven kept faith with his craft and art as he lost his instrument.’ she said. Referring to Beethoven’s deafness, she acknowledged that she no longer dances as before despite a daily visit to the gym. ‘I’m losing my primary instrument as a dancer,’ she remarked. ‘And when that is lost, you either have to find a new way or stop. I was not interested in stopping. I was interested in how Beethoven did it. He was a virtuoso at the piano, and although he couldn’t hear the music, he was unbelievably physical in his conducting. Movement precedes music. And his moving through daily life motivated the music.’"

At this turning point in her illustrious career, Tharp did find "a new way," and she recently unveiled a new, standing company at the American Dance Festival, after 12 years of freelancing. Tharp, who disbanded her earlier company due to the financial and administrative headaches of maintaining an organization, explained simply, "I need to be grounded again in my own company."

Tharp has created more than 100 dances during the last four decades, putting her indelible, idiosyncratic stamp on contemporary dance. She has choreographed five Hollywood movies, has written a best-selling autobiography, and has been honored with two Emmy Awards, 15 honorary doctorates and a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

In addition to her own companies, distinguished classical and contemporary dance companies throughout the world, including the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance, the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theater and the Martha Graham Dance Company, have performed her works.

In addition to her work in films -- "Hair," "Ragtime," "Amadeus," "White Nights" and "I’ll Do Anything" -- Tharp’s best-known works include "Deuce Coupe" for the Joffrey Ballet, "Push Comes to Shove" for Mikhail Baryshnikov, "Nine Sinatra Songs," "In the Upper Room" in collaboration with Philip Glass, "The Catherine Wheel" in collaboration with David Byrne, and her 1985 staging of "Singin’ in the Rain." "Cutting Up," which she performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov, became one of contemporary dance’s most successful tours, including sold-out performances in Hancher.

The commission of "Diabelli" was supported by H. John and Florence M. Hawkinson of Wilmette, Ill., and by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Hancher Millennium Festival was the most extensive and ambitious performing-arts millennium celebration in the United States. The season-spanning festival featured more than 20 major commissions in music, theater and dance.

In addition to "Diabelli," new works were presented by theater visionary Robert Lepage; choreographers Paul Taylor, UI alumnus Lar Lubovitch, Susan Marshall, Bill T. Jones, Ushio Amagatsu and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar; and composers including Richard Danielpour, Michael Daugherty, Paul Schoenfield and UI alumnus David Lang.

Performances of the commissioned works were presented by prominent ensembles including American Ballet Theatre, the Kronos Quartet, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sankai Juku, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, the Ahn Trio and the Ethos Percussion Group.

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