at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

February 6-17

Twyla Tharp’s eclectic interests have always meant she’s occupied an ambiguous artistic niche. Now she occupies an ambiguous political niche as well. Last year she disbanded her own troupe and took about half of her dancers with her to American Ballet Theatre, where she had signed on as artistic associate. This year, now that Baryshnikov has left, she seems to be out on her ear (the title of the dance she premiered here last year, The Bum’s Rush, has proved prophetic). Her future relationship with the country’s top touring company remains obscure, but in the meantime it continues to perform her choreography. In this year’s engagement at the Civic, ABT devoted one whole evening to Tharp’s works; Antony Tudor was the only other 20th-century choreographer so honored.

Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs has metamorphosed several times. It was premiered by Twyla Tharp Dance in 1982, then recast for ABT in 1984 as Sinatra Suite, a work for a single couple rather than seven. This year the seven-couple original was given its ABT premiere.

Nine Sinatra Songs is a very different dance from Sinatra Suite, which I saw ABT perform several years ago. Tharp’s reputation for raffish wit, and Baryshnikov’s performance then–his easy pop sensibility and sly sense of humor–made me think it an elegant in-joke: Sinatra? Ballroom dancing? You’ve got to be kidding! Of course Tharp both was and was not kidding; but as I recall, the sense of fun was strong enough that the cruelty of the dance to “That’s Life” struck a jarring note.

Nine Sinatra Songs, at least in this performance, was a very, very serious dance. The elegance, especially the musical elegance, is still there; the fun is still there. But more than anything, the dance made me sad. The simple set–floor-to-ceiling midnight blue velvet draperies at the rear of the stage and a giant, glittering discotheque ball suspended overhead–dwarfs the dancers; we feel the tremendous weight of the space over their heads, under which they twirl and maneuver obliviously. The dance is also elegiac: Sinatra’s songs and style were dated 20 years ago. I can’t hear “My Way” (which is performed twice) without smelling spilled beer and old cigarette smoke, and to me no place is more temporal than a bar. The music is canned of course, but Tharp heightens our sense of its staleness, its pastness, by including a live recording, with the sounds of a long-ago crowd’s appreciation.

The set and music were basically the same for Sinatra Suite. But that seemed the personal saga of a single couple; Nine Sinatra Songs shows us “the young in one another’s arms.” Its structure, unlike that of the far simpler Sinatra Suite, its both inclusive and expansive. The first three dances are for three different couples; the fourth brings all three back together onstage to the strains of “My Way.” The fifth through eighth dances are each devoted to a new couple; those four couples are brought back for the ninth dance, again “My Way,” to which the first three couples also return. The effect is of widening ripples, of a crowd expanding exponentially and possibly forever–if only the Sinatra songs would hold out.

At the same time, Nine Sinatra Songs is highly specific: each dance tells its own story. You know these couples, their personalities, the whole course of their relationship, and the specific phase of it they’ve reached at the point of the dance. There are the young, inept, angry lovers of “Somethin’ Stupid,” the good-natured, fumbling ne’er-do-wells of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” the fluff-brained celebrators of “Forget Domani.” These portraits have the force–and the ephemerality–of snapshots.

ABT’s performance may have enhanced my sense that Nine Sinatra Songs is serious business. These dancers gave it a silky, gracious treatment, their timing especially subtle and accomplished. Tharp’s choreography often anticipates the lyrics, so that just before Sinatra sings “step,” a dancer steps, or just before he sings “not in a shy way,” a dancer looks shy. It takes a liquid, intuitive timing and just the right sense of respectful parody to anticipate rather than broadcast what’s coming. Susan Jaffe and Kevin O’Day were beautifully electric in “Strangers in the Night”; in “All the Way,” Christine Dunham and Michael Owen perfectly captured the thoughtful, formal negotiations of a mature couple on the verge of something very serious.

If Nine Sinatra Songs takes an “outmoded” and now highly competitive form–ballroom dancing–and brings it back into the fold of expressive naturalistic dance, Push Comes to Shove does the opposite. Here Tharp takes ballet and pushes it out. Push Comes to Shove, made for and about ABT in 1976, is a rude look behind the scenes of the fortress of classical dance. Traditional ballet positions and moves dissolve and deform and re-form; the dancers doodle and fidget and make faces at each other. Tharp manages to suggest here that creativity is creativity, no matter the style of dance, and pokes a hole in the notion that ballet dancers are anonymous ciphers. Danilo Radojevic danced the role Tharp created for Baryshnikov, and though he has Baryshnikov’s insouciance, he lacks the authority to make this a deadly serious competition as well as a romp.

Tharp’s In the Upper Room, which her own company premiered at Ravinia in 1986, seems to take place in a dance never-never land, with its Philip Glass score, its stage smoke, and Jennifer Tipton’s heavenly shafts of light, which make the dancers look as if they might be running in and out of clouds. Essentially it has two casts–one of six dancers, one of seven–who represent, though not in any absolute way, modern and ballet dancing. These two casts form an unholy alliance.

But though Tharp seems to explore, once again, the differences between modern and ballet–modern’s groundedness, its mundane but vital sources in “low life,” and ballet’s aerial splendor and ability to focus our attention–she also seems out for bigger game. Like its Glass score, In the Upper Room seems to meditate on the process of differentiation. Even the costumes–black and white stripes–provide for subtle shifts of focus and perception: upstage, they’re a grayish mush; downstage, they have all the clarity of prison bars.

I kept thinking of the painterly distinction between figure and ground: what makes an object emerge from a background, what makes it recede? Of course Glass is sometimes accused of monotony, and of course he’s not really monotonous. Repetition seems the key; the conundrum is that repetition both creates and destroys monotony. In dance, a gesture or phrase repeated often enough will eventually register with even the dimmest viewer. Repeated too often, it recedes from view. Tharp plays with the ideas of continuity, monotony, and focus, both in her dancers’ ghostly entrances and exits and in the way the “melody” is passed around from one dancer or group of dancers to another.

In the Upper Room muses rather than pronounces; it makes nothing absolute. The dance doesn’t look meditative at all–it’s tied so closely to the almost too intense Glass music that the effect is more of feverish, almost unmotivated energy. But this is also what makes In the Upper Room so moving–the sense that choreographer and dancers are striving toward some object that remains enigmatic.

Which makes it all the more a shame that the dancing this year should have seemed less committed, spirited, and buoyant than it did last. That could well be the result of low morale, if ABT is indeed cutting Tharp loose. If ABT won’t provide her a niche, that’s their loss. But somewhere in this country there has to be a place for Tharp’s unique mix of scrappy daredevilry and elegant, measured intelligence.