at the Civic Opera House

April 1, 3, 4, 8, 10, and 11

Watching a Twyla Tharp dance for the first time is something like taking a whirlwind tour of a remote foreign country. You look around, frantically trying to get your bearings, and by the time you do have an inkling of where you are and what’s going on the experience is over.

Watching the Hubbard Street Dance Company perform Tharp’s The Golden Section at the Civic Opera House I felt more at sea than I’d expected. After all, I had seen this dance before, back when Tharp’s company performed it here in the mid-80s. But the Hubbard Street performance went by in such a flash of whirling arms, thrusting pelvises, and mad dashes and leaps that afterward I did something I’ve never done before: I rented the video. Something like looking at the map after you’ve left the country.

The Golden Section was originally the finale of an evening-length work, The Catherine Wheel, which Tharp’s company first performed in 1981 on Broadway; in 1983 PBS taped it for its “Dance in America” series. The video includes the entire work as well as interviews with Tharp and the dancers, so it gives The Golden Section a context that’s missing here. What’s more, the context that was provided by the rest of the Civic program–Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen, Daniel Ezralow’s Super Straight Is Coming Down, and Margo Sappington’s Cobras in the Moonlight–made us think of this dance as yet another technical tour de force when it should be much more.

The Golden Section employs 13 dancers, 7 men and 6 women, in choreography as much like fireworks as Tharp could manage. David Byrne’s original vocal and instrumental music starts out at a high pitch of excitement and gets higher–very much a product of its time, and of a time ten years earlier, it sometimes sounds Eastern, sometimes like the Beach Boys. The dancers’ golden costumes and the curtain at the rear of the stage are lit to give the effect of a deep, rich Aztec gold, as juicy and dark as the taste of a pineapple–the multifaceted symbol at the core of The Catherine Wheel.

The bulk of The Catherine Wheel is a dark family drama with a cast of squabbling cartoonish characters: a mother and father, two children, a pet, a maid, and a poet. Their house literally comes crashing down around them. The counterpoints to this naturalistic drama are more abstract dances performed by the chorus and a character called Sara, who like the Saint Catherine for whom the catherine wheel is named searches for an unearthly perfection. So Tharp sets up two extremes: a neurotic chaos of egotism and sexuality, and a neurotically controlled impersonal and asexual order. The “Golden Section,” she says in the video interview, was meant to resolve the tensions the rest of the dance set up. But can it do that if the rest of the dance isn’t there? Certainly the dramatic import this section was meant to have will be lost.

Still, it was Tharp’s choice for several years to show The Golden Section on its own–often critics had praised this section even when they didn’t much like the rest of the dance. What was talked about then, and what I recall from seeing it seven or eight years ago, is The Golden Section’s astounding physicality and energy (its images of boxing and jogging presage Tharp’s In the Upper Room). A woman clutched about the waist by a man throws herself backward in a dive nearly to the floor; dancers run and leap across their fellows’ bodies. But as Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt said in her 1988 book Time and the Dancing Image, “The dancers in the ‘Golden Section’ . . . do not show you stunts or feats, even as they are executing the most amazing feats you’re likely to have seen.” And that, I think, is the difference in Hubbard Street’s performance of The Golden Section: they show us feats. That’s not how it was meant to be.

The Hubbard Street mission, which this program and past programs have made clear, is to do, and do well, all sorts of different choreography. Its repertory is purposely eclectic, and its performances are always polished. It gives value for dollar. Which is fine, but a dance like Cobras in the Moonlight, with its slick, stylish surface and overdetermined conceptual structure (“These four tangos,” a program note informs us, “represent a journey toward the loss of the anima . . . the feminine principle”), does nothing to prepare us for the complexity and pared honesty of Tharp’s work, in which technique is necessary but not the point.

It also seems to me that the Hubbard Street dancers perform The Golden Section too carefully, as a sort of dance obstacle course–they seem to have been assigned tasks rather than to have freely chosen what they do. Given the dance’s intricate daredevil catches and lifts it must be fiendish to perform: the dancers have got to be right on the money, yet they can’t look like they’re thinking about that–or about anything at all. Technically Hubbard Street is up to the demands of this piece, yet sometimes they looked as if they were moving too slowly. The problem was not the tempo of Byrne’s recorded music–the dancers had no problem keeping up. But they didn’t seem to be filling out the movement, weren’t making it big enough to match the score’s phrasing–or stretch it. On the video the dancers sometimes look like overexcited children on the verge of spontaneous kinetic combustion, and I rarely got that feeling from Hubbard Street.

It was also very strange to see The Golden Section on the same program as Tharp’s 1979 Baker’s Dozen, which Hubbard Street now performs with wonderful authority. Made only two years apart, they’re quite different works, yet they seem to have a similar aim. Baker’s Dozen deals with egotism by making it comical and benign: its 12 hammy performers continually struggle onstage, are dragged off into the wings, and struggle back on. The male solo that opens the fourth part (performed by Alberto J. Arias) is a model of innocent pleasure in oneself: the man shivers luxuriously like an animal shaking off after a pleasurable dunk. Later the dancers scramble into a pose for some invisible photographer, scramble into it again, and again–always looking for the limelight. Yet despite their jockeying for position and show-off solos, we sense in Baker’s Dozen an exquisite civilization that allows for and incorporates everybody’s ego: we get the sense of a crowd, yet there’s room for everyone. The dance reminds me of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In The Golden Section Tharp seeks to blast egotism out of existence with a white-hot impersonal vitality that may be the source of egotism but not of its more corrupt manifestations. To create that furnace Tharp draws on much harder-edged movement, the kind we associate with jazz dance, than she uses in Baker’s Dozen. As a result some of the subtleties of the earlier dance are lost, though she brings them back in the solo that closes The Golden Section. Claire Bataille –who’s retiring after these performances–makes this solo as melting, nuanced, and secure as I’m sure Tharp intended it to be: it’s a treat to see all the work’s hard, bright energy channeled and transformed in her supple dancing.

I hate to quarrel with Hubbard Street’s performance of The Golden Section, partly because I’m so grateful that a Chicago troupe, the city’s most proficient, is reviving Tharp’s work. And the difference in the way Hubbard Street is now performing Baker’s Dozen compared to last year shows what time can do; the same can happen to The Golden Section, maybe even this weekend, when it’s being danced again on a different program. Though I experienced some minor- league disappointment, there’s no question that this dance–and Bataille’s final performances in Tharp’s work, in Lou Conte’s Georgia, in any dance at all–should not be missed.

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