at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

March 20, 22, and 23

Mistakes make us nervous–the actor forgetting his lines, the musician hitting a false note, the dancer falling down. Perhaps watching a mistake onstage recalls our own performance anxiety. Then there’s the problem of how to react. Is a performance with mistakes in it a “bad” one? Should we applaud?

In dance we think of mistakes as a matter of performance, not choreography. So naturally the obstreperous Twyla Tharp has to make a dance–Sue’s Leg–that’s rife with “mistakes,” such dancer’s nightmares as falls, uncontrollable dizziness, being outstripped by the music. She made this quartet in 1975 for Twyla Tharp Dance; Hubbard Street revived it during this engagement, with Claire Bataille, Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, Geoff Myers, and Josef Patrick. Much as I love Tharp’s work, Sue’s Leg sure sits oddly with such conventional pieces as the one that followed it, Margo Sappington’s Mirage (1990). Even odder, though this is a far less interesting dance than Sue’s Leg, Mirage is more fun to watch on a bill that provides the perfect antidote to its glassy “perfect” surface.

Sue’s Leg is performed to the music of Fats Waller–eight songs, one of which is repeated, so there are nine sections. Waller’s music swoops and diddles and messes around the beat; it’s ideal for a dance that’s about winging it. The structure of the dance too seems playful, almost haphazard compared to some of Tharp’s work: the dance is pinned with two nonconsecutive solos (originally danced by Tharp and here by Hilsabeck) with contrasted styles and intents; otherwise it seems to meander in loopy fashion from one song to another. Each number has a distinct personality: “Fat and Greasy” is all rowdy shouting; “Tea for Two” has a blues train chugging through it; “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” is not only lovesick but ironic.

Now for those mistakes: the splits end with the dancer’s rump dropping resoundingly to the floor; a slow deep knee bend ends in a fall; a dancer seems to lose her footing, swoops low, almost onto her butt, and catches herself at the last minute on the outstretched arms of the others. It’s not that all of Sue’s Leg is made up of choreographed mistakes–that would be boring–but they come often enough and are varied enough that we’re looking for them. The section called “I’m Livin’ in a Great Big Way” has a male solo (very tunefully performed by Myers) that mimics tap dancing, though the actual taps are part of the recorded score; sometimes the dancer looks as if he could really be tapping out those sounds, but at other times that’s impossible–one foot may be off the floor in a rond de jambe, for instance. Meanwhile the music taps blithely on.

In this solo, as in other parts of Sue’s Leg, Tharp cleverly makes use of The Fugue, a dance she choreographed five years earlier; fiendishly difficult to perform, it’s a natural reference point for a subsequent work about mistakes. Though for years The Fugue has been danced without music in boots or heavy shoes on a miked floor, it was originally performed outdoors to the recorded sounds of the dancers’ feet on a stage. Rose Marie Wright, who danced in that first performance, once told me that tape and movement were out of synch; and clearly in this later “tap” solo Tharp returns to the humor she must have found in that situation. The final section of Sue’s Leg–note the title, “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed”–clearly repeats, though in a softer performance style, bits and pieces of The Fugue: the two-footed stamps, the crossed arms, the elbow cocked as if drawing a bow.

Sue’s Leg also opens up all kinds of possibilities for actual mistakes. For one thing the choreography continually plays with looseness and control–runs stop on a dime, for instance. Such things look deceptively easy: We can all run, can’t we? And we can all stop running. But to catch yourself in the middle of a falling run into perfect stillness is hard: you have to let go or the run will look stagy and careful, and you have to catch yourself or you’ll really fall on your nose. Make a mistake in either direction and you’ll look like a goon. The partnering in Sue’s Leg also looks deceptively easy. There are few duets, or even trios; instead individuals tend to toss themselves at the other three. A sort of gang partnering. So, it should be easier for three people to catch somebody than for one, right? Wrong. Partnering is a matter of negotiation–finding the exact right place, for instance, to grab another person to maximize both extension and control–and when you add more people to the equation, you just add more variables, more ways for things to go wrong.

So why should anyone want to watch a dance about mistakes? Because however uncomfortable it may make us, risk is at the heart of all exciting performance, and at the heart of comedy. No amount of clowning is going to draw laughs if the clown insists on perfection. But because Sue’s Leg does address the issue of mistakes so directly, it’s also threatening, particularly to those who are unsure of their judgments about dance. Two very rude high school girls seated behind me jeered loudly all the way through Sue’s Leg, which they considered “stupid.” They sat in respectful silence during Mirage.

Sappington’s Mirage is a duet set to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams; though the choreography isn’t nearly as complicated as Tharp’s, it does have its difficulties. The man often throws the woman in a wide circle around himself, sometimes holding her in odd places, such as the nape of the neck; there are also some very high lifts and catches. Josef Patrick was a strong and considerate partner for Linda-Denise Evans, who was wonderfully graceful and languid (though on occasion the choreography doesn’t seem to allow for her long legs). It’s an old-fashioned kind of dance, with a silky-smooth skin stretched taut over steely muscles, steely control. And without taking anything away from the Hubbard Street dancers, Mirage is a dance they can do in their sleep. Still, its very contrast with Tharp’s work was a pleasure of sorts; it had the refreshing simplicity of a sorbet.

This program was rounded out with artistic director Lou Conte’s The 40’s, which remains as catchy as its big-band music; Daniel Ezralow’s Super Straight Is Coming Down (an earlier and better work than his Read My Hips–Super Straight has more integrity and cohesion, more choreographic invention, and much greater drama); and Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen, which was danced more fluidly and surefootedly than it had been the week before. If you saw this Hubbard Street engagement you may not have liked the same dances I did, but I think you’d agree it was a hell of a show. For that we have Lou Conte’s risk taking to thank.

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