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Tharp's Mistake

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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at Ravinia Festival, August 23-26

The problem with a choreographer as inventive and versatile as Twyla Tharp is that she makes too many kinds of dances too damn well. She's been feeding her old works to Hubbard Street for five years now--a cornucopia of some of her best pieces, dating back to 1970. Several distinct types are starting to emerge, and I'm beginning to feel I can pick and choose: I like this kind of Tharp dance but not that kind. Picky, picky.

Fait Accompli, which Tharp made for her own company in 1983 and which received its Hubbard Street premiere at Ravinia last weekend, is part of a vein Tharp identifies as beginning with The Fugue (1970) and running through In the Upper Room (1986). In her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, she writes of a lineage of "power women," dancers strong and limber enough to do whatever she asked. Dances in this vein communicate an overwhelming, punishing athleticism; they tend to be unisex, with no partnering or special consideration for the "gentler" sex; the dancers can even seem machinelike, bearing no human relation to one another. Sometimes in The Fugue they're like windup toys executing little mechanical motions, and Fait Accompli, like In the Upper Room, uses boxing and jogging motifs.

Fait Accompli also recalls 1982's apocalyptic Bad Smells. We see smoke and hear explosions and crashing sounds, sirens and Klaxons, voices over a radio perhaps discussing some disaster. The rock score, by David Van Tieghem, often carries a heavy beat, though every once in a while we hear a sweet, breathy woman's voice. The dancing begins with quartets and works up to all 16 dancers onstage, 8 men and 8 women. At first the choreography is unsettlingly mechanical and circumscribed: if the torso bends at all, it seems hinged at the waist; arms take geometric shapes; legs become the calipers of a compass as the dancer pivots on one foot to mark a circle. Gradually the dancing becomes looser and more violent. But ironically, as the performers become less machinelike and more human in their motions, they maintain and even pick up the driving pace.

Man over machine--maybe. For the stage is empty at the end of Fait Accompli except for a shaft of light filled with smoke. And this dance is even more machinelike than others in the same vein--humanoid, not human. A lesser work than In the Upper Room, partly because the score is less interesting, Fait Accompli nevertheless requires amazing energy and precision, which in this premiere Hubbard Street didn't always provide. The performances will improve over time--just look at how the company does Baker's Dozen now, its intricate exits and entrances and lifts and tumbles down pat yet fresh. But Baker's Dozen is worth the effort, and I'm not sure about Fait Accompli.

Baker's Dozen epitomizes my favorite Tharp vein. Soft, happy, filled with the delight of movement and endlessly generous and interesting choreography, it provides a window on a better place, human but never sappy. Like a similar work about community--Sue's Leg, set to Fats Waller--it uses old-time jazz by Willie "the Lion" Smith; in her book Tharp says of her early relationship with her mother, who played piano, "Music seemed as much a part of my mother as her voice or touch. To this day, whenever I hear Mozart or Bach--and Gershwin, Fats Waller, and Cole Porter too, for my mother practiced Tin Pan Alley as well as the classics--I feel loved."

Juxtaposing Baker's Dozen with the "sneak preview" of I Remember Clifford (which has its official premiere next spring) was a mistake. This is the first piece Tharp has made specially for Hubbard Street after five years of working with them, but she doesn't seem to have challenged herself or the dancers much. And this longish work is in her narrative vein, a vein she herself declared problematic in her autobiography, where she says of The Catherine Wheel (about a dysfunctional family, though it's best known for "The Golden Section," the pure-dance part of it often performed alone): "Once again...the narrative became the problem. I was still insisting on seeing theatre as literal, demanding real answers to real questions in my real life." Somehow, when "the truth" enters Tharp's dances, Tharp's imagination all but disappears.

It's not that Clifford is bad. This is Tharp, after all. But this 34-minute work set to six jazz recordings treads dangerously close to self-pity and sentimentality, and it seems to take the easy way out. The story involves a young man (Ron De Jesus) on the fringes of an adolescent, couples-only society; a projection at the rear suggests a ballet bar--or, more likely, the kind of bar you belly up to. From the beginning De Jesus is an outsider, putting on a sneer and a slouch that belie his longing to be part of the crowd, to dance with a woman; De Jesus, who looks like a soft-at-the-core tough guy anyway, does a great job of acting, expertly putting across the body language that says "keep away/come closer."

In the second section, set to Roland Kirk's smoldering "Blue Rol," a siren (Krista Swenson) seduces De Jesus even as she's lifted and tossed by four other men. The third section establishes the woman De Jesus really wants (Sandi Cooksey) and his real rival (David Gomez). As the section closes she gives De Jesus the eye, but in the time it takes him to straighten his tie she's walked off with Gomez. This humiliation is followed by a cruel, dark section set to Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," the beginning a solo for De Jesus that involves lots of turning and spinning and itchy rhythms out of sync with the music, which is moody to begin with. This section ends with De Jesus spazzy and exhausted, battered by his feelings, perhaps drunk.

The beginning of the fifth section is even darker, as Gomez beats and chokes De Jesus in a stylized fight. But suddenly, inexplicably, De Jesus is coordinated, on top of things. Charles Mingus's music becomes more upbeat, and De Jesus jumps backward to be caught by four others who seem to have run out deliberately to catch him. Then suddenly Gomez is De Jesus's champion, raising his arms in a gesture of triumph that De Jesus duplicates, in what looks very much like an ending. But the mellow sixth section remains: De Jesus makes his peace with all members of this society, though he's still not admitted to it.

Tharp relies extensively on mime, body language, and eye contact to tell her story. The dancing is secondary--though sometimes it's inspired. At the end of the first section De Jesus does a little jig of virtuoso geekiness, looking as if he's got bugs in his pants. And in the second section Swenson is one hot mama, eyeing De Jesus even as she's manhandled by her four swains. All the dancers do well. But for heaven's sake, these are the same people who've mastered The Golden Section and Nine Sinatra Songs--they can do more. Tharp can do more: she relies too much on De Jesus's lyricism to carry his solo in the pivotal fourth section. Maybe she thought she was making a dance that would be a stretch for her and Hubbard Street, an openly dramatic work requiring strong acting skills. But to neglect the choreography so much, to fall into cutesiness--a crooked come-hither finger, a courtly kissing of the lady's hand--is a shame.

Nor does the choreography, or any of the acting, explain how the darkness, the exclusion and cruelty, turns into redemption. Where is the pivot point, and where does it come from? Tharp drops the ball on some crucial issues. In her autobiography she says, "As a kid, I had a wardrobe full of formals but I never went to a single school dance." She talks about reading as a means of fighting her isolation and anxiety. She shows little self-pity in the book, taking a light approach to her adolescence, but I wondered whether De Jesus was a stand-in for the teenage Tharp, and the dance an attempt to come to terms with a painful part of her life.

If so, she's being too hard on herself, almost masochistic, and too easy on the crowd that excluded her--a crowd we all know, from junior high most likely. The way out of personal dilemmas is movement, pure movement, as Tharp discovered making "The Golden Section": "The set vanished and the dancers stormed the stage with a new, positive energy: the narrative gobbledygook disappeared into a harmonious wash of light, costumes, music, and movement." Tharp writes that she made her first dance as a young girl, when she tried to kill a rattlesnake with a hoe. "The fright, the battle, the victory, all made my adrenaline surge. I had tapped directly into the primitive drive that celebrates brave physical conquest, good over evil, through ceremonial performances." I Remember Clifford needs more snake killing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lois Greenfield.

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