With old-timey string tunes that’ll lift your spirits and your knees, the Carolina Chocolate Drops know how to get the party hopping like no other revivalist band can. Their specialty is African-American string music, of the southern bluegrass persuasion, and they deliver just enough contemporary pluck for their bygone tunes to feel fresh and still familiar. Lead singer Rhiannon Giddens has a cavernous, soul-curing kind of voice — a voice capable of making or breaking your heart and infinitely spectacular in person.
Their set lists are a combination of original songs and covers, ranging from Blind Willie Johnson to Tom Waits to Run DMC’s “You Be Illin’.” The band has changed hands many times, with Giddens the only founding member left, but they’ve stayed true to their ethos of cultural recycling in surprising and thoughtful ways. Beat boxing is combined with the galloping clop of the bones; fiddle goes hip-hop in a rendition of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ’Em Up Style.” Cultural appropriation is common currency in the art world, and in many ways, what the Drops do best is this kind of bricolage.
For those familiar with titan choreographer Twyla Tharp, another boundary-breaking bricoleur, it came as no surprise that she sought out the band for a collaboration. For 50 years Tharp has translated ballet’s fluid movements into jazzier versions of themselves, sometimes studied and sleek, other times raucous and belligerent. Her work is comprehensive, with a stable of performances created from what culture has given her: jazz, modern dance, boxing, vaudeville, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, German Expressionism, misprints in the New York Times, among other things. All to varying to degrees of success or failure, though no one would argue her place in the canon of contemporary dance. “Cornbread Duet” was inspired by the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ music, and its premier performance, at Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday night, was the first time anyone saw Tharp match her movements to the open-faced lyrics and rollicking tunes of folk.
There’s something exceptionally delightful about ballerinas dancing to this kind of music. Graceful glides and arabesques coupled with roll-back-the-carpet romping — or at least as close as you can get to romping in pointe shoes — in BAM’s opulent and gilded Howard Gilman Opera House. The Chocolate Drops first played a handful of tunes before Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild, principal dancers from the New York City Ballet, took the stage. Like most ballets, “Cornbread Duet” is a love story, and it opened with the randy, traditionalist bluegrass song “Cornbread and Butterbeans.” Peck and Fairchild flirted their way around the stage — hips saddled next to each other only to repel, torsos orbiting their axes as if disjointed from the sits bones below, Peck and Fairchild’s arms sailing through the air in buttery sweeps.
Ballet gave up the ghost as the dancers pointed their heels instead of their toes and cowboy chacha-ed to and fro. Peck especially impressed, her slight but toned build attuned perfectly to the down-home flitting of Tharp’s choreography. Fairchild’s execution was wobbly in the beginning, making the moves look more haphazard than they should. The challenge of taking a traditional form of dance and setting it to untraditional music is mostly timing. Dance forms are predicated on music, its tempo and rhythm. If classical music and ballet are the peanut butter and jelly of the dance world, then to put ballet with something rowdier (what would bluegrass be in this metaphor — homemade mustard?) means that timing becomes everything. Tharp is mostly a master at conquering this, and “Cornbread Duet” was a success in that, yes, we now know ballerinas can dance to bluegrass. But it’s possible that her insight into what works requires such precision that if one of the dancers falls out of step, it’s jarring.
I reentered the narrative with the dancers in the next song, as their twitterpatted movements began to fall into something more enduring and dependable. Pliés folded open towards one another; a foot lifted for a fouetté, bowing and spinning one body towards the other as if honoring, not just vying after, one another.
The two best sequences of the night constituted the narrative arc of the romance: “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man,” in which the couple seem to have their first fight, and “Genuine Negro Jig,” which was sort of like make-up sex. One thing Tharp has been criticized for in the past is the literalness of her choreography, something that perhaps resonates less well with the abstract quality of jazz than with the already literal form of folk. Rather than trying to get below the surface of the music, Tharp used the music itself as a stage; she provided the characters. “Genuine Negro Jig” was by far the most sensuous and rigorously performed piece. It’s a sexy and melodic tune that summons languid, smoky nights and sweating bodies. It was thrilling to watch Peck and Fairchild straddle and snake their way on and around each other.
In the end, however, Tharp’s “Cornbread Duet” was outshone, partly because it was such a short part of the evening — only five songs — with the Drops playing 21 songs in total. But more enchanting than Tharp’s choreography was the addition of Emily Oleson to the stage, a pixie-looking dancer in jeans and a lacy T-shirt, whose improvised mixture of the Charleston, B-boying, and mountain flatfooting added a charming, ad-libbed flair to the evening. Though she performed off to the side of the stage, Oleson’s choreography got to the heart of the Drops’ music in a way that Tharp’s did not: it was joyous and messy and paid homage to such a variety of movements, it made you want to get up and dance just as much the music did. Tharp has provided us with some tantalizing work in the past, but “Cornbread Duet” is just simply good. I’d suggest seeing it if you ever have the chance, but more than that, I’d suggest seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops and having yourself a knees-up.
“Cornbread Duet” was performed as part of Carolina Chocolate Drops with Twyla Tharp at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) on April 10, 8pm.