at the Civic Opera House, through May 9

Twyla Tharp is known for intelligent novelty: her dances skim by in a blur of clever invention. Yet in her 1982 Nine Sinatra Songs she seems to purposely skirt cliche–to walk up to it, stick her tongue out in its face, and walk away. And of course, being Twyla Tharp, she dares the hoariest cliche, romance. This suite of seven duets and two ensemble numbers is filled with balletic ports de bras, amazing lifts, and swooning dips to the floor; the men are chivalrous (usually), the women melting (usually). The eight songs by Frank Sinatra (we get to hear “My Way” twice) are another romantic cliche–dusty make-out or boozy jukebox music complete with dated orchestrations and lines that have become jokes (“Doobie, doobie, doo”).

Maybe Tharp is trying to rescue Sinatra, as she rescued Willie “The Lion” Smith in Baker’s Dozen and Fats Waller in Sue’s Leg. Sinatra doesn’t need rescuing from oblivion, of course–his hell is overexposure. His music needs to be redeemed, not remembered. Perhaps that’s her project throughout Nine Sinatra Songs: to redeem romance. It sadly needs it, having been used for years to sell everything from instant coffee to Harlequin novels.

This season at the Civic, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago revives Nine Sinatra Songs, the fifth work acquired for its Tharp Project. And these 14 dancers do remarkably well, especially in the duets with a touch of humor or aggression. This is one of the straightest Tharp dances I’ve seen–it’s even literally straight, the dancers more upright and the limbs more spiky than in earlier works. But it does have its cynical, teasing side. In “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” the dancers are drunks: Daniela Panessa clambers onto Joseph Mooradian’s back or slips through his arms into a soggy heap; they give each other playful little shoves back and forth in a bit of gleeful drunken flirtation.

In “Something Stupid” Alberto J. Arias and Krista Swenson are awkward teenagers: they lock arms romantically, back to back, then suddenly find they’re pulling hard in opposite directions, like two ponies in a tug-of-war. Twirling Swenson by the waist, Arias gets carried away like a kid with a new toy and spins her like a top. Sandi J. Cooksey and Matt Rivera do a marvelous job with “Forget Domani,” which I hated when American Ballet Theatre performed Nine Sinatra Songs here a few years ago: they show that this fluff is funny, getting down pat the silly little horsey toss of the head that defines the dance. And Shan Bai and Ron De Jesus are tough and teasing as the apache dancers in “That’s Life.” De Jesus looks dangerous, especially when he pulls the woman up from the floor by her arm hand over hand like a navvy hauling in rope; Bai’s knifelike precision and teasing little smile make her his match in aggression, however differently she may express it.

Less successful are the three straight romantic duets and two ensemble sections, in which the couples reappear but drop the quirks that defined them. In these five sections it seems Tharp wants to distill romance from musicality: in the ensemble pieces the men toss the women about in rocking, dipping, cresting motions that make the stage a rough sea of longing and tenderness. The humorous or aggressive songs are meant to set these sections off, as gold sets off diamonds. But whether it’s a flaw of the choreography or the dancing, these straight romantic sections didn’t work, not for me. It may be that phrasing against the music doesn’t come easily to the Hubbard Streeters, who are used to dancing on the beat. Certainly “All the Way,” which was indescribably luscious performed by ABT, looked stiff here. For now at least, Hubbard Street’s Sinatra Songs is largely carried by their talent for clowning and drama.

The exception is Christine Carrillo in “Softly as I Leave You,” the delicate, yearning duet that opens Nine Sinatra Songs. Her facile body readily accepts the nuances, the squiggles Tharp builds into her choreography–something you could see even more clearly in Carrillo’s dancing in The Golden Section. In fact the dancers seem to be enjoying this work much more than they were a year ago, and if they’re enjoying it more, so do we. The Golden Section reminds me of African dance, not in its look but in its ends and means: the intense rhythms and vocalizations of the David Byrne score build to impossible heights, and the dancers’ task is to fill up the space between the beats with the flourishes dictated by Tharp’s inventive mind and their own bodies. The result is both playful and driven, secular and spiritual. It’s also deeply sexual, without being sexy in any obvious way.

Hubbard Street’s performance of Tharp’s big Baker’s Dozen is more delicious than ever, while the four performers of the little Sue’s Leg–Cooksey, Geoff Myers, Josef Patrick, and Swenson–have made this piece their own, a cocky marvel of clowning. Swenson is especially good in the role Tharp originated, and as you’d expect, it’s prime stuff.

If I focus on the Tharp works–there are some 13 dances by other choreographers scheduled for these performances–it’s because they stand head and shoulders above what almost any other choreographer today is doing. Chicagoans are extremely lucky to have a champion hometown team performing the works of a genuine leading light. It’s almost unfair to someone like Margo Sappington to have her new work, The Forging Ground, premiered on the same program as Baker’s Dozen and Nine Sinatra Songs.

If Tharp flirts with cliches, Sappington embraces them with abandon. She doesn’t even seem aware of the danger. The Forging Ground, a dance for seven men, mines every cliche about masculinity in the book. In the first section the guys are a cross between Marlboro men and West Side Story toughs, with hips ajar, pelvises jutting. That macho image gives way (inexplicably) in the second section to a tender dance for two men who partner each other using all the cliches of romantic male-female duets; one man even draws his hands to his heart while we hear a bird singing on the Latin-flavored recording. During their duet a third man strips off shirt, undershirt, and jeans (which he folds and places in a neat pile in front of him) to reveal a unitard almost more nude than nudity. In the third and final section all the men appear “nude” to dance to the beating of drums from various “primitive” cultures: they even hunch over like apes.

The monotonous choreography for The Forging Ground is as cliched as these concepts. No matter the masculine phase being limned, we see jazz layouts, leaps, and turns. Despite the tender duet and what I take to be the men’s sense of community at the end, the dancers don’t really seem to connect. (Randy Duncan’s Initiation, made for Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, is a far superior dance, integrating men’s strength, competitiveness, and love for each other: the JHCDT men seem both genuinely connected and genuinely masculine.) And what good does it do to turn the tables on men and make their bodies the object of the female gaze? I thought my companion’s comment on The Forging Ground apt: “It was very long,” he said, “and the dancers are clearly in good shape.” But Hubbard Street is past that now.