“This piece is probably terrifying you,” says Twyla Tharp in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice. “But that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

With this reassurance out of the way, the rehearsal can begin. The dancers take their turns stamping and whirling through the intricately counted and patterned steps of the dance, and Tharp observes, her eyes owlish behind horn-rimmed glasses; she interrupts, stopping them when she sees a detail she doesn’t like or when they’ve got the meter wrong; she exhorts, bending forward from the waist like a diminutive female Ditka, shouting questions and conundrums.

The dance is The Fugue, a work Tharp created 20 years ago exactly; the dancers are members of the Hubbard Street Dance Company, which recently purchased the rights to perform this and two other Tharp dances for three years, at a cost of $300,000. The date is July 13, roughly halfway through a rehearsal process that will culminate in Hubbard Street premieres of The Fugue and Sue’s Leg in mid-August at Jacob’s Pillow, a venerable dance festival in Massachusetts.

A Twyla Tharp rehearsal is as good as a play. Her pithy remarks run the gamut from gut-level descriptions of the movement–“in this releve, you should feel like you’re being sucked up by a straw”–to personal observations on the dancers’ characters. She’s bossy but good-natured, mimicking her performers’ mistakes but also amused by them, grabbing people by the shoulders or shirts, pouncing on their feet and massaging them into the correct position.

Feet and hands come in for a disproportionate amount of Tharp’s attention. She starts by asking what the key word is for the arms in The Fugue. Relaxation? one dancer hazards. No, she says, that’s an illusion. “It’s honesty,” she nearly shouts, “truth for the arms!” After the arms, hands. “The hands can’t be dead,” she says. “The eye can’t go to the hands because they’re dead.” But the life in the hands can’t be self-conscious, either. And the all-important feet: “Inside your heavy shoes, I have to feel your toes. Your toes should have like suction cups at the end.”

No detail seems to escape her. She rags the dancers, for instance, about the simple walks that separate the different sections of The Fugue–they’re not simple enough, the dancers’ nerves are showing. One walk, she says, looks like, “Oh my God, I think we’re doing it!” About another she complains, “I still feel you’re about to get shot in the back.”

She is critical but empathetic. When a dancer completely flubs one section–he’s doing steps, but they aren’t the steps she choreographed–she watches him with an ambiguous smile. He finishes and apologizes, laughing but embarrassed. “That was very creative,” Tharp responds. “I wasn’t going to say anything.” Minutes later, when the same dancer deftly completes another section, she compliments him on his rhythm: “You could really see the double time.”

What the dancers are feeling is as important as what they’re doing with their hands and feet. “In The Fugue,” Tharp says, “disaster point number one is if you look nervous. Everyone has nerves and always will–but it’s a matter of acting, you disguise.” She reminds them that the audience wants to like the performers; but minutes later, the audience is their “natural enemy.” Worry only about connecting with each other–“forget about them out there,” she says, gesturing at the mirrors, the surrogate audience in the studio. Then suddenly she’s lecturing them on ways to keep the audience’s attention: contrasts, for instance, have to be “enormous” to register onstage. Despite the inwardness of certain sections, she scolds, they must never forget that the audience is there.

During a break, I mention to Tharp that her advice to the dancers has been somewhat paradoxical.

“Lies,” she says smiling. “That’s what makes good theater, lies.”

During this rehearsal Tharp tells the Hubbard Street dancers that The Fugue is homespun, early American, absolutely square, absolutely plain, absolute. Its main principle, she says, is labor–“it’s a very American dance, it’s all about the work ethic.”

The Fugue has no music, no soothing medium in which performers and audience can swim. And it’s not a dance to learn intuitively. It’s a nightmare of counting, of sequences cut up and rearranged and run backward. Struggling to describe it, Hubbard Street artistic director Lou Conte says, “It’s like a mathematical puzzle–in Chinese!”

The Fugue’s basic building block is a 20-count sequence of steps that takes roughly 20 seconds to execute; following the analogy of a musical fugue, Tharp calls this sequence the theme. With a couple of exceptions, each count corresponds to a step on one foot or both, though these steps change direction, vary their distance from the floor, and may involve minor stylistic additions–one hip dipping during a pivot, for instance. The first five counts go like this: (l) jump on both feet; (2) jump on the left foot and extend the right on the diagonal slightly behind yourself (so you’re starting to turn to the right); (3) step forward on the right foot, pivoting to your right to do so (you’ve now completed a three-quarter turn, clockwise, from your starting position); (4) step straight forward on your left foot; (5) step forward on the right foot and pivot on it to your left, making a three-quarter turn counterclockwise.

The exceptions to the “one count, one step” rule are counts five and six: on five, the left leg is raised; on six, it’s suspended and moving through the air. It drops to the floor only on count seven. Counts five and six allow the rhythm to slow to half speed momentarily. And there’s an “and” between counts 12 and 13–a quick touch of the toe behind oneself–that allows for double time. The whole sequence can also be done on the other side, which simply means that left and right are reversed; in count two, for instance, you’d jump on the right foot and extend the left.

During the first rehearsal, Tharp quotes Bach to the dancers: the beauty of a phrase, he said, is in its construction. In Bach’s terms, she wants them to know, the theme to The Fugue is beautiful. Rose Marie Wright, a former Tharp dancer, later explained to me what Tharp meant by that: “It’s not a beautiful phrase to look at, but it’s beautiful in the sense that it has all of these possibilities built into it: turns, half time, double time, different ways of covering space.”

The 20-count theme provides a language for The Fugue: if Tharp says “nine, ten,” the dancers know instantly which steps are meant. But Tharp’s method is to scramble the syntax of her original phrase–you never see the 20-count theme plain and all the way through in the course of the dance. As in a musical fugue, you see “variations” on the original theme. And these stylistic variations can be cut up and spliced back together in various ways to juxtapose their different looks.

There are four stylistic variations in The Fugue; each has a different tempo and adds the movements of different body parts to the original theme–in Tharp’s terms, movement “accumulates” from the first to the fourth variation. The first variation she describes as “blisteringly fast” and “retracted”: the arms are crossed and held in tight to the chest, and the steps must be “tiny, tiny, tiny” because the tempo is “fast, fast, fast.” This first variation not only has “no arms” but also “no eyes”–they must be closed. (“And no cheating!” Tharp yelled at the dancers when she told them, demonstrating the look required by squinching up her face like a newborn in a rage.) The second variation, which is also fast, adds the head and arms, but minimally. It’s called “the tics” because the head twitches to the right and back on certain counts (though the tempo is quick, Tharp tells the dancers that this motion should be as uninflected as a gate swinging open and closed). Here the arms are “low” and simple, held straight down as if the dancers were wrapped in invisible straitjackets. The third variation, the “Isadora” or “waltz” variation, is much slower and takes up more space; though there are no specific movements for the arms, they’re allowed to swing up and out, so this variation soars and swoops. The fourth variation, at a medium tempo, adds distinct arm movements, a different arm position for each of the 20 counts; to my eye the effect is something like semaphore.

In addition to this cache of movement The Fugue also has two subsidiary themes, which are entirely different from the main 20-count theme but like it can be spliced in here and there. One–“Rose’s solo”–appears in its entirety near the middle of The Fugue but also makes appearances in bits and pieces throughout the dance. The other, “the jazz theme,” is an emphatic, almost martial sequence with lots of jabbing arms. Then there are five “mush phrases”–not themes exactly but soft, incomplete, “amoebalike” gestures.

As the basic theme of The Fugue is made up of 20 counts, the dance itself is divided into 20 different sections; each of these is also called a fugue, and all together they take about l5 or 20 minutes to perform. The cast is three dancers, though any given fugue might use one, two, or three. Like a musical fugue, The Fugue uses its distinct “voices”–its three bodies–contrapuntally. When two or more dancers are onstage, at almost any given moment each will be doing something different from the others.

The Fugue was first performed by Tharp, Rose Marie Wright, and Sara Rudner, and the three roles are still called by the original dancers’ first names. A look at Rose’s part in the first fugue gives an idea of how Tharp has cut up and reassembled the basic components of the dance. This fugue uses only Twyla and Rose, and Twyla begins it. While she goes through the first 8 counts of the first variation, Rose simply waits for 8 counts. Then Rose does the first 8 counts of the first variation, the first 8 counts of the fourth variation, goes back to counts 9 through 20 of the first variation, does all 20 counts of the second variation, the first 8 counts of the third variation, and a small (or “marked”) version of Rose’s solo, one of the two subsidiary themes. Meanwhile Twyla has been running through her own steps. Depending on how Rose has phrased her solo, she completes it when Twyla is somewhere between the 13th and 16th count of the fourth variation. Rose “catches” Twyla wherever she is, and from there through count 20 of the fourth variation the two dance in unison to end the section.

This is by no means the most complicated fugue, though it’s not the simplest either. Tharp calls the intercut phrases “breakups,” and they become more complex and “broken” as the dance goes on. And there are other ways the steps can be manipulated. Done backwards–it looks like a film being reversed–they’re called retrogrades. Turned inside out–down becomes up, or more often, front becomes back–they’re inversions.

About midway through the rehearsals, one dancer who’s just learned a particularly difficult fugue, the 16th, complains rather bitterly: “How many more breakups can you do? Why? Why not quit at 15? Or make 20 more fugues so that by the end no one can do it?”

But to describe The Fugue technically does not do it justice. Against all reason it’s a pleasure to watch: without understanding the rules, a viewer knows they’re there and marvels at the dancers’ labor and concentration in carrying them out. The dance is richly human and richly formal, almost architectural. The scrapes and stamps and taps of the dancers’ feet–the women wear boots, the men heavy shoes–create the music; you can close your eyes and “see” the dance. But if you open them, the intercut sequences and contrapuntal voices together create a dense visual weave of contrasting movement.

Once dancers know The Fugue well enough, it’s invigorating to perform, though Wright says it’s never really fun. “It’s always difficult to do,” she says, “and so each performance has its own problems. It was never perfect. There was always something to rework.” Can she think of any great performances? “That’s different from being perfect. The LA performance [one of several on videotape used for teaching] is a great performance, but there’s a lot of things that are wrong on it. A lot. But what made it great was the level of energy and the way the three of us were working together.”

Though Tharp originally made The Fugue for three women, she has always thought of it as a masculine dance, and as soon as she could afford men and had assembled three of them in her company, in 1976, the women pretty much stopped dancing it. Hubbard Street will do two versions, one male and one female. The women’s cast–Claire Bataille, Sandi Cooksey, and Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck–will be the first women’s cast to perform the dance in more than ten years. The men’s cast is made up of Ron De Jesus, Josef Patrick, and Matthew Rivera. Although Tharp conducts four rehearsals herself, she’s not really teaching the dance to Hubbard Street. Wright and another former Tharp dancer, Jennifer Way, take charge of the tedious process of passing on the steps: running to the video machine, watching an old tape, running back; consulting their notes; consulting each other. “How was it again?” “We always had trouble with this one!”

The atmosphere at rehearsals, even without Tharp, is intense, the pace not rushed but relentless. In some ways, the Hubbard Street studios exacerbate the tension. Located on the third floor of an older building on South Wabash, they’re periodically filled with the sounds of construction and of the Evanston Express and Lake/Dan Ryan trains going by right outside the windows. Sometimes it’s easier to hear a conductor’s announcement to his passengers than to hear what Way and Wright are saying to the dancers. The classes in adjoining studios often impose some funky rock pulse on the performers, making even more difficult their struggle to fill silence with The Fugue’s tricky cadences. Conte’s big red dog, Buddy, wanders into the studio now and then with a neon green tennis ball in his grinning mouth. Bataille’s son, Isaac, and another dancer’s daughter, both about one and a half, toddle in for an occasional visit.

The interruptions, even the noise and confusion, are sometimes comforting, homey. And the studio space itself, with its high ceilings and ceiling fans turning briskly, its big windows facing east, its clutter of bags and shoes around the periphery, is reassuringly removed, a big, white, open place, a blank canvas. But the rehearsals are undeniably tedious. During a break, Wright glares at me and says, “Dancing is not glamorous, not glamorous, not glamorous.” But no one is truly bored either–teaching and learning The Fugue requires too much concentration for that. The dancers accept one correction after another, delivered minute by minute over a period of several hours. They stop and start like a faltering machine, and punctuate their work with exclamations of “sorry” and “shit!”

“It’s constant rejection, a dancer’s life,” says Conte. “”You didn’t do this well, but you did this OK.”‘ In the course of my time in the studio–roughly half of The Fugue rehearsals–I took more than 200 pages of notes, most of which consisted of teachers telling dancers what they were doing wrong.

Rose Marie Wright was the “bass” voice, as Tharp calls it, in the original Fugue. She stands six feet tall, but the main feature of her lanky grandeur is a complete lack of pretension. Her customary garb for rehearsals is an ancient pair of bell-bottoms–they flap about four inches above her ankles–and one of several tattered T-shirts, often with a personal significance. One of her favorites reads “Fugue Off.” Her face is spare, a little drawn; she speaks quickly and sometimes abruptly in a deep voice, and she laughs often. “Rose is facts,” Tharp has said. “Rose is the truth.” Now 41, she quit dancing for Tharp–which for her meant quit dancing, period–in 1981.

Wright had been with Tharp for a couple of years when The Fugue was made, in the summer of 1970. During that summer, Wright lived on the farm in upstate New York that Tharp owned with her husband at the time, Bob Huot, a painter. The dance was created outdoors–I think of the sun baking the tops of Tharp’s and Wright’s heads. (Rudner was in Europe when Tharp began work on the piece, so the Sara role does not appear until fugue number five.) When Tharp talks about suction cups on the dancers’ toes, she’s trying to re-create in them a sense of the earth’s resilience. The fall forward that marks Rose’s solo, Wright explains to the struggling Hubbard Street dancers, was easier to do on a hillside.

The Fugue was just business as usual to her, says Wright. “[Tharp’s] work had been even more complex previous to that–she would come in with these grid patterns and numbers and breakups, all this laid out on paper, and hand them out to each one of us.” The Fugue was a continuation of that manner of working, but in some ways it was simpler: “She didn’t have all this graph paper, and we didn’t have to deal with being in this space at this time. It was more like a dance.”

The Fugue was first performed at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August of 1970. Though it was demonstrated there every afternoon for a week or so in a theater, the actual premiere was outdoors. But because Tharp loved the sound the dancers’ shoes made on the wooden stage, she decided to make a recording of the sounds and play it back during the performance at the end of the week. I once asked Wright how that went, and she said, “I don’t remember. I just remember the tape starting before we did, because Twyla had pushed the button and she had to go back to place.” Later, when The Fugue was regularly performed in theaters and costumes were added, Tharp put the dancers in boots and miked the stage floor.

What Wright remembers from the period when The Fugue was made, she says, is the farm. “Punching down the bread . . . we did a lot on the farm. We cleaned, and we did the laundry. We baled hay”–she starts to laugh–“we cooked, we did the dishes. They had just gotten the house, so we were stripping paint. With Red Devil. Plant the garden, mulch the garden. We did everything! We were the hired hands.” Were you paid? “No, that was for our room and board.” She adds that Tharp worked hard, too, and that Huot kicked the tractor.

According to Wright, Huot was not very receptive to what was going on on the farm that summer. “At that time,” Wright explains, “it was ‘art is bullshit.’ ‘My art is my farm,’ people said, or ‘I’ll do a blue line,’ all this conceptual stuff. He was trying to have Twyla do that, too. Here she wanted to have this company, and dancers, and make dances–so it was really difficult that way. But he also just didn’t want us in the house.”

Though Tharp has specifically told the Hubbard Streeters that The Fugue is not an angry work, it has been seen that way. In an early review, Arlene Croce quoted a male dancegoer who said it looked like “a war dance of Women’s Lib.” Wright’s recollections suddenly make me see it not as an angry but as an uncompromising dance: This is who I am, and this is what I do.

While Tharp was working on The Fugue, she was in the earliest stages of pregnancy; her son, Jesse, was born the following March. “That was the first we knew she and Bob were married,” says Wright. “They’d been married for four years.” Tharp was full of surprises. In the early days, Wright also recalls, she once disbanded her troupe–a financial maneuver–without telling her dancers. Wright and Rudner found out about it when they went to a Merce Cunningham concert and people began offering condolences.

Wright calls Tharp private rather than secretive. In fairness, she points out that the choreographer is absentminded, and may have believed she’d said things that in fact she’d forgotten to. Tharp formed strong attachments to her dancers, but it was difficult for her to show them. “The way she shows it is by making dances for you.” Laughing, Wright adds, “She puts you in everything.” The choreographer was also generous with gifts and thank-yous. “There was this tradition in the company, especially when it was smaller, that all openings we’d get a gift, each one of us, from Twyla.”

Wright quit dancing roughly 12 years after she’d started with Tharp. She was 31, had a high school education, and had been dancing professionally since she was 14. She says she was simply burned out: she was crying before performances, she says, and after them she felt “nothing, no satisfaction, nothing. No accomplishment, nothing, just nothing. I felt like I was in this grave, this tomb, and I just wanted to crawl out.”

Wright’s intense relationship with Tharp made quitting such an ordeal that she was depressed for years both before and after she made the decision. When Wright was 19 and looking vainly for work–no one would hire a six-foot-tall woman–Tharp had coveted her for her height. Tharp herself hated to lose her dancers, and looked on a dancer’s departure as a form of betrayal. “It was like a marriage to her,” says Wright. “It was that intense a relationship.”

When she left Tharp’s company, Wright moved to the country with her husband. She spent an aimless, depressed three years there, she says, “chopping wood, sawing wood, building fires, cooking meals, cleaning.” Her list of chores, so like the list of tasks she performed for Tharp on the farm in that summer of 1970, reminds me of how easily dancers might see themselves as workhorses, as dumb animals plodding through their steps. Though dancing uses everything–not only bodies but minds and hearts–it’s a curiously passive occupation. Dancers carry out the choreographer’s vision, and they’re not expected to complain or express an opinion about what they’re told to do. They’re just expected to do it.

Tharp sometimes incorporated dancers’ mistakes and experiments in her choreography, Wright says, but when the choreographer had her own ideas, no dancer would ever refuse to carry them out. What if it hurt? “Then she would probably take you out of the piece. You never say no to a choreographer, never. Balanchine said, ‘Dancers are the tools.’ They want people who will say yes, yes, yes; do, do, do.

“Which doesn’t mean that it’s not creative. But it’s not your work. It’s someone saying, ‘Do this, do that. Again. Again.'”

It’s June 27, about a week into rehearsals. The Hubbard Street dancers have the fourth, eighth, and tenth fugues under their belts; today they’re learning the first. A lot of dancers are in on these early rehearsals: casting is still somewhat uncertain, and the understudies need to learn the roles in any case. Because Sara doesn’t come into the first fugue, Way has all the Twylas, male and female, in one studio, and Wright has all the Roses in another.

The first fugue serves as a kind of overture, so it’s important for the dancers to make the differences between the four variations plain. Way reminds the Twylas that the first variation is like a bat out of hell, the second is mean and martial, the third is like a waltz, and the fourth drives forward. And accent the “ones,” she says, because they define the beginnings of the cut-up sequences.

She asks the two male Twylas to do it together. Joey Patrick drops out, momentarily confused, then finds his way back in. Seconds later he shouts “shit!” and quits in the middle. The other dancer has already made a misstep and dropped out.

Way says, “You’re letting your body say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Just keep the beat, don’t worry about the style. Throughout The Fugue, you have to [shifting into a singsong cadence] ‘Keep the metronome going/ Force your body to do it.'”

When the three female Twylas take a stab at the first fugue, they stamp through the ending impressively, with great gusto. But Way tells them, “Don’t spend yourself too early.” They have 19 more fugues to go.

The men and women Twylas take turns running through the first fugue several more times. The women look more expert to me, partly because they seem to have the contrast between the third and fourth variations down better; for the men, the lyrical blends with the driven. The men seem discouraged; Way tells them pointedly that there’s nothing to worry about, it will come.

Wright pops into the studio to consult with Way, and they decide it’s time to put the Roses and Twylas together. For a while all ten dancers are practicing their parts separately, and the room looks like chaos. But if you watch carefully, you can see the dancers’ different styles of learning. Some frequently consult Way or Wright or another dancer and want to do the steps with someone; others prefer to work alone. Some stop and start often; others force themselves to keep going, no breaking off allowed. Some practice the steps constantly and painstakingly; others are more apt to just stand there and think them through.

Now the Twyla-Rose couples go through their paces, pair by pair. First up are Joey Patrick and Matt Rivera. When they’re done, Way tells Patrick not to rush, reminding him that it’s “very even, very steppy.” They do it again, and Way points out that in the middle of this fugue the pacesetter shifts from Twyla to Rose, because the choreography suddenly puts Rose two counts ahead of Twyla. Again, she says they should force themselves to be on the beat: “Tick to yourself.”

Next up are Frank Chaves and Geoff Myers. They start off fine, but Myers suddenly stops–he thinks he’s done the steps wrong. Way assures him that he hasn’t, he should have kept going. When they manage to make it all the way through, with Way and Wright clapping to provide the meter, the watching dancers applaud them. Wright gets mad: “No applause when we’re clapping the meter!” She’s only half-joking. They do it again, without the crutch of an outside meter, and the other dancers applaud again. Chaves grins, looks toward the ceiling, and crosses himself.

The first pair of women are Krista Swenson and Sandi Cooksey. When they’re done, Way tells them, “That finish–count 20–don’t fall off it,” meaning that each must be firmly balanced on the one leg supporting her. Watch each other for cues, she reminds them, and she scolds Swenson for not establishing a dominant enough beat. Wright tells Cooksey that there should be less give in the hips: “You get to do it full later on.”

Two more pairs of women run through it, and then Way decides it’s time to consult with Wright again: “Did we change?”–and she does the step she means. After some discussion and an eventual decision, Wright teases the dancers by going “shhhh” to Way, pretending the dancers are not supposed to know that their teachers might make mistakes or change things.

As the rehearsal goes on–the Fugue part of the afternoon generally lasts two or two and a half hours–the dancers are more apt to fool around when they’re not “on.” Pairs sit facing on the sidelines, legs straddled, and massage each other’s calves and thighs. But one dancer massaging her partner’s legs is also telling her something about the 20-count theme: her head bobs to an imaginary meter and her lips count silently.

Joking breaks some of the tension during rehearsals, though there’s more laughter during Sue’s Leg than during The Fugue. Sight gags are a staple: someone waiting his turn to perform Sue’s Leg strips to the Fats Waller music. Showing the correct way to do a phrase, Wright unconsciously pulls her nose while she’s doing it. The dancers all laugh, pull their noses, and intone, “But Rose told me to do it this way!”

Both teachers push the dancers hard, often toward a looser or more daring level of performance. Wright tells them one day that they have to stop feeling their muscles, explaining with a story: Once during a rehearsal she was required to run across the room with her head nearly on the floor. She always fell, she felt like an ass, but that’s how Tharp wanted it. She ends the story by saying, “Don’t control it too much.”

Later that day, Way explains that one of the steps in Sue’s Leg is not just a scoot backward but a real slide. “Really slide on the slides.”

A minute later, the newest member of the company takes a big slide backward, loses her footing, flies forward, and lands on her chin.

The other dancers mobilize instantly. Two of them run out of the studio–to get Conte, to get ice, to call the doctor. Cooksey sits down by the woman’s head, straddling it with her legs, and applies a towel to her chin, which appears to be deeply cut. When Cooksey briefly rearranges the towel, blood runs down the woman’s neck. Within seconds, it seems every Hubbard Streeter around, from dancers to staff, is in the studio. The receptionist runs in with a towel to use as a pillow. Way strokes the woman’s hand, Wright her forehead. Cooksey says, “Relax, baby.”

In a short time, the ambulance comes–someone jokingly refers to it as her ride–and the crowd disperses. But some dancers are left shuddering and shaking their heads, and one says, “I hate this kind of stuff.”

She had to have stitches, but there was no head injury.

If the choreographer’s tool is the dancer, the dancer’s tool is the body. Sandi Cooksey, Rose in the women’s Fugue, is particularly attuned to that fact. Only 23, she seems oppressed by a sense of advancing age. She quit her first love, gymnastics, at 14 when she decided she was “too old” to compete at her level–the competition was 11 and 12. Because she’d started to enjoy the dance training that went along with her gymnastics coaching, she just switched her focus. Besides, she says, “Dancing was a lot less hard on my body–at that time.”

When she retires from dancing, Cooksey would like to become a physical therapist; since she’s had no college, it will take her six years to get a degree. She sounds fierce, almost angry, when she tells me why she’d like to concentrate her practice on athletes, particularly dancers: “Right now I don’t have a lot of patience with people who are not familiar with their bodies. It’s true. Whether you’re a dancer or an athlete or not, it’s your device for being here; you should take care of it and be aware of it.”

Cooksey talks about her body as if it were something foreign, an object she has to control. Last April a cartilage tear forced her to have knee surgery, which kept her from dancing for a couple of months. Now she’s in both The Fugue and Sue’s Leg, and is trying to come to terms with the differences in her body caused by the surgery. While we talk, she massages her knee with a big chunk of ice she holds in a paper cup.

“The mechanics of my knee are just slightly different, because there’s a little piece of cartilage missing that changes its mobility,” she explains. “So I’m compensating in certain muscles, which then overtires them. It’s a vicious cycle! It is getting better, but there are certain areas that get irritated; it kind of has a mind of its own.” Some days are worse than others: “It’s unpredictable, except for the weather. Really cold or really hot bother it.”

Even a head cold is something to master. When I ask her about her cough, she says, “It started last week. But I knew I couldn’t get sick because Twyla was coming in. And then when she left, it all just caught up with me on the weekend.”

Learning the choreography, processing the teachers’ constant corrections, is equally a case of mind over matter. “It does take a certain maturity just to be able to accept them,” Cooksey says, “but if you’ve gotten into this kind of company, you should be beyond that. But there’s another level, of not only accepting but applying them. Being able to apply them is really the most difficult thing.

“I’m having a hard time getting my weight down into the floor and relaxing. I tend to grip in my thighs and hold myself up, not completely use my plie and get down. Both Jenny and Rose keep telling me about it over and over. And I keep telling them, ‘I know what you mean and I can see it and I’m trying to do it . . .’

“But say, for instance, when we just did The Fugue all the way through, by the end Jenny said, ‘That was right, you were getting down.’ Well, because I was so tired I could hardly hold myself up!” She laughs, then adds, “But I sort of felt what it should be like. And hopefully I can apply it now from the beginning instead of halfway through, when I’m exhausted.”

It’s frustrating to learn The Fugue from video, says Cooksey, because each taped performance is vastly different from the others and sometimes bears little resemblance to the steps being passed on in rehearsal. “Rose and Jenny say watch the video, and what they’ve taught you is hardly even on the videotape,” she says. “It’s mostly because, when they get in a performance, their movement is much bigger–or there are so many idiosyncrasies that you kind of lose the basic step. And what they’re doing now is teaching us the basic step, but what we see on the video is so much beyond the basic, it’s really that person’s way of moving. It’s very individual. If we could see a video of just the basic steps, a really pure version, it would be great. But because everyone does it their own way, it’s really difficult.

“I think the individuality is what Twyla was excited about, when she had her own company and made The Fugue.”

Jennifer Way, now 39, danced in Tharp’s company (with a break to have a baby) from 1975 until 1988, when the company was disbanded. One of her first tasks was to replace Tharp in The Fugue; at first, she says, “I wasn’t quite as feisty as Twyla.” But after watching herself on videotape, Way realized that Tharp’s frenetic energy was necessary for the three distinct styles to be visible: “I saw I needed to imitate some of that.” The change was difficult, she says, but good for her, because then she could bring that same energy to other pieces.

Way, whose favorite word seems to be “functional,” is bitter that the study of dance is so loose, so inexact, so little a science. She’ll be teaching technique classes to dance majors at New York University next fall, and is outraged that they’re allowed to take the classes pass/fail. “Sure, they’re gonna cut classes; sure, they’re gonna be late; sure, they’re gonna pretend they’re sick. It’s pass/fail–they aren’t responsible for getting the material, knowing the phrases? This is ridiculous. Dancers are pampered.”

She doesn’t fault dancers so much as the attitudes that let them get away with such things. In her eyes, the ideal dancer is someone who is willing and able to imitate, because that gives a performer range and texture: “A lot of dancers say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to look like that, I can’t look like that.’ Goddamn it, look like that! You’re not showing me the phrase unless you do imitate it.”

One of the things that’s most puzzling to me about The Fugue being passed on to Hubbard Street is how these particular dancers are supposed to imitate the “voices” of the original three. Cooksey, for example, can hardly “become” Rose: she’s shorter than Wright by several inches, she doesn’t move in the same way; most important, she doesn’t have Wright’s personality; Cooksey has her own.

Then, too, the Rose role is especially difficult technically–one dancer refers to it as “schizo.” Yet the Rose voice, the bass voice, is supposed to be absolutely stable and definite. At one rehearsal, on July 22, Tharp comes down hard on both Roses, Cooksey and Matt Rivera. The youngest members of their casts by several years, they’re having a hard time establishing Rose’s deep, dominant note. Tharp’s simple advice to Cooksey: “I want you to feel you’re enormous all the time.”

When it comes to Rivera, Tharp simply hounds him for a while. After the third fugue, she asks him how he felt during it. “Insecure,” he says. She nods–she knew that all along–and advises him to find “an interior metronome, a road map.” In the middle of the fourth fugue, she stops him and says, “You’ve got to get rid of your self-consciousness; you’re not quite sure you should be there.” He starts, but she stops him again: “Think of what I said, and get the self-consciousness out of your jaw.” When he’s finally managed to finish the fugue, Tharp has a final reminder: “Keep telling yourself, ‘I’m not a shy person at all.'”

Rivera is only 20, a gangly youngster with candid, expressive dark eyes who was inspired to start dancing by the movie Flashdance. His last dance job was at Disneyland, and he’s been with Hubbard Street just nine months. “Nine months ago,” he says, “I would never have imagined I’d be working for Twyla.” Clearly a bit dazed, he’s struggling to find his place in the company and the line between self-criticism and self-confidence. During rehearsals he’s apt to ask what the other dancers are doing at any given point, and is often told to forget what the others are doing.

Of Tharp he says, “She can see right inside you–tell what you’re thinking, tell what you are.” At first he got nervous when he knew she was coming to a rehearsal, but not anymore. “You know, she said, ‘There’s no use getting nervous; it’s not going to help your dancing at all.’ Especially for The Fugue, you have to be yourself, you have to be relaxed, or it won’t come across, it won’t be right.

“Now I actually look forward to her coming, because she always says something that helps me a lot. She says so many negative things, but somehow it comes across positive.”

Of course The Fugue can’t register as a contrapuntal arrangement of different voices unless the voices are distinct; the dance’s survival in a new company depends on the dancers’ ability to re-create at least some of the qualities in the original. Way says that the original cast had a nice balance: “There was Twyla, who was really feisty; and Sara, who was more lyrical; and Rose, who was just this solid foundation.” Tharp tells the Hubbard Street dancers that they should think of striking three-part chords, with Rose the bass, Sara the middle, and Twyla the high note.

Clearly these designations have something to do with the size of the original dancers, but not everything: the Hubbard Street dancers chosen for various roles have not been picked solely on the basis of their height and weight. De Jesus, for example, is the most substantial figure in the men’s Fugue, and he’s Sara, not Rose as you might expect.

Tharp’s comments to the Hubbard Street dancers hint–perhaps rather frighteningly–that the audience can see much more of them in The Fugue than just their outward appearance. “This piece is interesting,” she says, “because I see the person, not just the body but the person. You can’t lose your identity.”

The Fugue requires so much concentration, such hard work, that it does seem to strip the dancer’s identity to the bone. There’s no time or space for worrying about a persona or adding curlicues. Not only that, but Way and Wright and Tharp all ruthlessly seek out and try to destroy “mannerisms”–the indiscriminate habits that inflect movement. Tharp refers to them as “pollution”: they don’t express but inhibit a dancer’s freedom.

But paradoxically, as much as The Fugue reveals the individual, it also subordinates him or her. As Tharp tells the men’s cast, “You have to put your egos at the subservience of the rules, which are more important than you individually.” In other dances, the music can pull the performers along and give the illusion of connection between them; but in The Fugue, the dancers must listen to and watch each other to achieve the split-second togetherness required.

To complicate matters, that togetherness rarely means dancing in unison; though the dancers must move to the same rhythm, they’re almost never doing the same steps. An interior sense of the meter is essential. Yet the tempo from one fugue to another and even within fugues changes constantly. In the eighth fugue, for instance, which runs through all 20 counts of all four variations from beginning to end, the third “waltz” variation is supposed to take twice as long as the first or second variation. In other fugues, like the seventh, odd accents and added beats create syncopation. And many fugues occasionally require the counts to be accelerated or decelerated.

With no metronome or clapping from the teachers, it’s the dancers who must establish the meter. Twyla, Rose, and Sara all take their turns at setting it: each fugue begins with someone counting out loud or slapping a thigh or hip.

As I watched The Fugue played out over and over and over again, it became obvious that the performer walks a tightrope that has less to do with physical expertise than with an emotional, almost moral discrimination about imposing oneself on others. A tentative dancer, one with no self-confidence, will destroy The Fugue–it will have no definition, no character, and, in the worst case, no meter. But a self-centered dancer will also destroy it, because for its structure to be apparent, the audience must be able to see the relationships between the performers. That means listening for and watching your partners and adjusting your steps accordingly.

Joey Patrick, 26, seems particularly well suited to the Twyla role. He’s outgoing, confident, energetic; he has a quick grin and a jaunty body. He got his start dancing when he was ten and his brother shot a video of him “goofing around, singing and dancing” as a Christmas present for their parents. His brother also passed the video on to a dance teacher, who knew talent when she saw it.

During rehearsals, Patrick is always the first to yell “shit” or stamp his feet with frustration. “I don’t think there’s been five minutes I’ve been shy,” he says. “For me to see a performer who’s really shy in person, I don’t get that. I’m not in and out; I’m out all the time.”

The Fugue, Patrick says, is not only physically difficult but “mind-boggling, very mathematical,” a kind of dance he’s never encountered before. “Certain fugues I feel a lot better about, but certain others I feel like this [he clenches his whole body, which shakes with tension and rage]. Like the first one [for which he must set the meter], because it’s so meter-oriented, and I’m setting the mood for the piece. I don’t want to be responsible for the meter! If I start it off wrong, it’s gonna make me feel the whole piece is bad.

“Then there are specific steps I have problems with, leaving them out or putting them in: the 3, the 4; the 5, the 6; the 9, the 10; the 13, the 14.” He laughs. “If you leave something out, of course your meter’s going to be off. Even if you’re still on the beat, you leave something out, you’re gonna be a beat ahead, or a beat behind if you add something.

“In other pieces, when the music is on you can go, because you know where you are, the music helps you. With this, it’s the other person. And if they make a mistake, that’s like the music skipping in the middle of your piece! I know they’re counting on me to do everything correctly, because they’re listening for my music to help them. It’s a real triangle.”

I mention Tharp’s comment to the men, that they need to forget their egos and remember the rules. Patrick says, “We’re not very good at listening–we’ve been working on that in the last couple days. We need to find reference points, points when we know, ‘If you’re doing that step, I should be doing this step.’ And if we’re not, we should be able to click into it [he snaps his fingers] so that we can fix it. Because if we fight each other and go, ‘Well, he’s on that, I’m on this, I’m not gonna worry about it,’ then it’s really gonna be horrible. Everybody’s gonna be doing their own thing, and we might as well just forget it.

“And eye contact is really important. For the last week I’ve had my eyes on the floor, watching my feet–still trying to remember the order of steps. Now I’m starting to be able to look up into somebody’s face–even though they’re not doing what I’m doing! Because I was always afraid I’d start doing what they were doing if I looked at ’em.”

Patrick may not be more worried than the other dancers about the Jacob’s Pillow performances, but he’s more willing to talk about it: “I’m just very nervous that I’m not gonna do it very well, and I think that’s why I’m so uptight about it. I just want to make sure I can handle it and not say ‘shit’ onstage when I mess up. You don’t want it to come out, but in a piece like that, with stage mikes, everyone would know.”

Noting that the men’s cast has only two of the six Fugue performances scheduled for the Pillow, he says, “I feel like I’ve got two shows to do it.”

Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, 32, also Twyla, seems to me a study in contradictions. Her cute, chiseled face and soft brush of orangy blond hair remind me of a baby chick, but her legs and sometimes her demeanor are hard as nails. She’s determined, physically and mentally alert, and very precise in her technique.

Like Cooksey, she started her career as a gymnast. That may partly account for her precision, though she points out that her own limitations might also play a role: “I don’t have a lot of extension–I can’t get too distorted because I’m not flexible enough. In gymnastics, you do have to be precise. On the uneven parallel bars, you’re a little bit off, you hit your hipbone. On the balance beam, you’re a little bit off, you’re off the beam. Technically, to stay on the equipment and not kill yourself, you have to be precise.”

Hilsabeck works constantly, even when there’s an impromptu break during rehearsals: other dancers might be talking or fooling around, but she’s going through the steps. When I ask her whether she works at home, too, she says: “You go home, and you think about it, and then you dance it at home. The first week, I’d go over it a little bit, but it wasn’t always going through my head. The last week and a half, I find I can’t stop thinking about it. I have to shake it out of my head, because it’s good to get away from it, too.”

Does she just think through the steps or really do them? “You kinda mark ’em a little bit. I do it every once in a while on the train [she starts twitching her shoulders and head], then I realize I look like a crazy person! People keep their distance from me.”

Hilsabeck is one of those performers Joey Patrick doesn’t understand: a chameleon, a shy person who completely changes her color onstage. In college she took an acting class just to pull herself out of her shell. But onstage, dancing, she’s never been shy, and that’s why she loves performing.

“I can relax, and communicate without words. I went through a thing when I was young–it seemed like nobody really listened to each other anyway, so why talk? But when you’re performing, people want to hear what you have to say through movement. So they listen, but they have to use much more than their ears–they use everything. They take it so much deeper than just words.”

Like every dancer I talked to, Hilsabeck considers The Fugue a challenge. “We don’t often get a chance to really involve our brains–I mean, we do, but in this piece you have to be on it every second. You never wander. There are pieces in the rep where I could be thinking of laundry sometimes, if I’m tired and I’m onstage and there’s a long pause or I’m just lying there. You can drift. But there’s no way with this; you’ve got to get yourself there when you step onstage, or it’s all over.”

Hilsabeck believes that The Fugue will fascinate audiences (not a common opinion among Hubbard Streeters): “We’ll finish a fast fugue, and if we hit at the same time, it’s like ‘wow!’ When I watch the videos, too–I can watch the same video over and over, I know they’re gonna hit together, but it still fascinates me. It still gives me that adrenaline rush, because they’re just going crazy and then, boom! They end together.”

What does it take from the performers to create that excitement? “It’s like Twyla said, if it goes well, never hope to duplicate that. Because you want to go beyond that. You never want to have an image in your head of what you’re trying to get, because if you don’t get it you’ll be disappointed. Where if you don’t have this “I gotta do it just like yesterday’ attitude, you think, “This is today, and we’ll see where it goes.”‘

Whereas Tharp had criticized the men for not paying enough attention to each other, she told the women they were collaborating too much. Hilsabeck explains, “It’s almost playing it safe, if we transmit the same thing–‘OK, on this, we’ll do this.’ Instead each person should be so extreme that you always have to be listening to each other.

“It’s like acting, where even though you know the lines, you can’t act on it like you know it. You can’t jump on your line, because that person hasn’t said theirs and you haven’t had a chance to respond to it. That’s how this is. If we know each other too well, we’re responding before they’ve given us the line.”

In yet another paradox of performance, it takes long hours of rehearsal–of just doing The Fugue together–to achieve spontaneity. “The excitement probably won’t get there by the time we open it, either,” says Hilsabeck. “It’s something that has to develop over the years.”

Hubbard Street is a different kind of company than the one that brought The Fugue to life on Tharp’s farm 20 years ago. It has never been a one-choreographer troupe in the way Tharp’s company was, and especially not in recent years. Lou Conte has been making a point of obtaining the works of other choreographers, and in the last five years there’s been a rapid turnover in the repertory; some exciting works, like Bill Cratty’s The Kitchen Table, which premiered only two or three years ago, are no longer to be seen. One wonders whether The Fugue will suffer a similar fate, and simply disappear. Some of the Tharp dancers performed The Fugue for nearly ten years–it was last seen in Chicago two and a half years ago, when transplanted Tharp dancers performed it as part of American Ballet Theatre’s repertory. The Hubbard Street dancers may not have the same chance to perfect it.

Hubbard Street differs from Twyla Tharp’s company in other ways. From what Wright has told me, the Tharp dancers lived more cheek by jowl than the Hubbard Streeters do. They rehearsed in Tharp’s loft apartment when she separated from her husband, and took turns changing her son’s diapers during breaks. Wright did not receive a regular yearly salary until 1975, when she’d been with Tharp for nearly seven years.

Tharp may have summed up the differences between the two companies one day during rehearsal when she said, “You people are professionals. We were amateurs.” She added, “God bless the amateurs.”

Ron De Jesus, 28, who has been with Hubbard Street for four years, definitely sees what he does as a job, though it’s a job he loves. Like everyone in the company, he spends at least 7 and sometimes 10 or 11 hours a day in the studio. Everyone takes a ballet class from 10 to 11:30 in the morning; rehearsals start at noon and end at 5:30, with a 30- or 40-minute lunch break in the middle. “Then a lot of us teach afterwards,” says De Jesus. “Yesterday I didn’t get out of here until nine, because I taught a jazz class and then a ballet class.” Up until two years ago, Hubbard Street dancers worked a six-day week. These days they get Saturdays and Sundays off, though during the Tharp rehearsals they’re asked to work two or three Sundays. A new Hubbard Street dancer with no previous experience makes $18,000 a year; a dancer who’s been with the company for a while makes $21-24,000 a year. Eighty percent of their health insurance is paid. They get six weeks of paid vacation a year; but when they’re working, the pace is heavy. “It’s constant, constant,” says De Jesus. “Either a new choreographer, new company member, getting ready for a major tour.”

A tall, lyrical dancer–he’s Sara in the men’s Fugue–with a mobile, energetic face, De Jesus tends to act out whatever he’s saying. When I ask him whether he’s thought about retirement (a question I ask every dancer), he says, “I’m going through that stage right now”–he recoils in mock horror–“not retirement! But my nesting instincts are coming out: What do I have? What have I accomplished?

“I meet some friends, about my same age, and they have a business, they have this, they have that, they have a house. I’m like, ‘Oh.'” He laughs, “‘I rent a little studio.’ It’s real gypsylike. I wonder what I will fall back on in the long run. That worries me. You always have injuries sittin’ behind you in the dark, waiting. And if some major injury happens and doesn’t allow me to return to performing quality, then I have to do something else.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m trying to learn, stay open-minded, and learn more about everything. . . . It’s so uncertain.”

The kind of physical talent it takes to be a professional dancer, at least at the Hubbard Street level, is probably equivalent to what it takes to be a professional baseball or football player; and like professional ball players, dancers retire long before 65–the average age for dancers is 35. Of course the professional athlete earns enough to put money away. De Jesus laughs and says, “Major money! That’s the scary part.”

Most people don’t value what dancers do. De Jesus says, “It amazes me that so many people–my family, people I meet–they go, ‘You’re a dancer? You crazy? You should be doing something productive with your life.’ Well, I am. At least I feel fulfilled by what I’m doing. I get angry, because I feel I’ve put in a lot of sweat and effort, tears and frustration–you know, it’s a real frustrating job. Not every day you’re gonna be on your leg; you have to find it somewhere.”

Though De Jesus is quite clear on the difficulties of being a dancer, he has only good words for Hubbard Street: “Lou really makes an effort to protect the dancers and provide what’s best for us. He’s always thinking about how we’ll cope with things.”

Rose Marie Wright once characterized the Hubbard Street dancers as a hardworking bunch who get along well together and can take a joke. De Jesus confirms this. “Everybody respects everybody else. Of course there are cliques, people you’re gonna hang with, people you’re not, people you’re gonna stay away from.” He laughs. “You spend so much time together, it almost feels like 24 hours a day. And then when you’re on tour, you practically do. You’re rooming with your partner, you get up and go to breakfast, everybody else is in the breakfast room.

“So they become your social life. If you have other friends, that’s wonderful. But if you don’t, it’s sort of hard. Because then you feel at a loss when you do have the free time. You’re not gonna call up the other company members and say, ‘Let’s go out for a beer.'” He laughs and mimics the reaction of someone totally turned off by the idea of a beer together: “No, no, no, sorry.”

Claire Bataille, 37, is the only one of the original four Hubbard Street dancers left in the company. Sara in The Fugue, she has the centeredness Tharp thinks characteristic of Rose; when the choreographer tells me that there are some dancers you should just leave alone, I think of Bataille immediately. Her face without makeup is scoured and pale; when she wraps a T-shirt around her head like a turban one hot day, she’s as terse and plain as a peasant. Her learning style is as efficient as her dancing–during rehearsals she’s apt to stand off to the side looking thoughtful; I suspect she’s going over the steps in her head. Her manner of speaking is gentle, her voice calm.

Bataille supports her young son and her husband, who’s a student, on her Hubbard Street salary. How do they manage? “Well,” she laughs, “we don’t do anything, we don’t go anywhere. It’s difficult.” Her day begins sometime between 5:30 and 7 AM–whenever Isaac feels like getting up–and her time away from Hubbard Street is spent in a whirl of Sesame Street, naps, baths, and mealtimes.

When she speaks of her job at Hubbard Street, it’s with considerable gratitude. “To think of being a dancer as having a secure job!” she says. “Yet it is here. You can’t turn your back on it.”

Bataille has seen a lot of Hubbard Street dancers come and go. “It was difficult at first to accept the changes that would happen each time new people came in,” she says. “But then it’s like watching a child grow. You see how things mature and go into different directions.”

The Tharp project, Bataille says, is in some ways a return to Hubbard Street’s roots: “When Lou first started the company, some of the earlier pieces that he did, like in the late 70s and early 80s, were very influenced by Tharp’s stuff. It was right before he started the company that we saw Push Comes to Shove for the first time. And Tharp really stresses an honesty in the performance, which is also something that’s true of Lou. In many ways, I think the two mind-sets about dance are very similar. Maybe not so much the choreography, but the approach is similar.

“So it’s more like going back to the way we used to work, at the beginning of Hubbard Street.”

“I wish I had done more things for Claire and for other members of the company,” says Lou Conte. “But I just had no burning desire to do it; I never considered myself a gifted choreographer. And what I really liked doing with the company was playing Diaghilev, sort of. Picking the best, trying to upgrade, upgrade, grow.”

Conte, who founded Hubbard Street nearly 13 years ago, insists on fairness to the dancers. Even in its early years, he says, “It was very important to me that the dancers made a salary. I’m totally against this freebie thing; I never let them perform for free, ever.” At first they were paid $20 apiece for a performance, nothing for rehearsal time; Conte made nothing at all.

Conte, whose folksy twang betrays a childhood spent in downstate Illinois, says, “I never intended on being a dancer at all.” He quit dancing for a time to go to college, where he studied zoology, but he performed briefly in summer stock between his junior and senior years. When his parents came and got him after the second show and brought him home, it made a deep impression.

“Not only did I not get paid, but I had to pay where I lived,” he says. “My dad said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ I was painting scenery, and rehearsing, and doing all this stuff. And I had to buy a suit to wear in the show. My dad said, ‘No, no. You’re gonna do all that, they’ve gotta put you in their own suit.’ And he was absolutely right.”

Conte also tries to take care of his dancers emotionally. “It’s my job to make them receptive to the information they’re getting right now,” he says, “and not have their egos too bruised when they get excluded from something.” He’s well aware of the pressures that learning the Tharp dances places on them: “You gotta be a good dancer, you gotta be smart, you gotta be focused. It’s hard, it’s real hard.” But like Tharp, Conte says, he believes dance is “all about the dancers.”

The expressions that pepper Conte’s talk about the Tharp project are “thrilling,” “inspiring,” “invigorating.” But from him, the press-release language sounds genuine. The story he spins about his frustrated wish to become a Joffrey Ballet dancer may explain his enthusiasm. When he was 27, after a dance career of several years in musical theater, he decided he just had to dance with the Joffrey. But though Robert Joffrey brought him to New York on a “sustenance scholarship” to study with the company, Conte quickly realized that he’d started too late in life.

Cutting off his association with the Joffrey was a terrible decision to make. Conte not only thought it might be the end of his dancing career, “I thought it was the end of my life!

“I just wanted to do it so much–I wanted to dance with the Joffrey dancers, and I wanted to be in that atmosphere. I’d been in Broadway musicals at this point, so I knew the feeling of big productions. But what I didn’t have was a sense of caring. Or a sense of real quality. The Broadway shows had quality, but everybody came in at 7:30, they did the show, and went home. There was no involvement.” The first ballet company to perform a Tharp dance was the Joffrey, which commissioned Deuce Coupe and performed it in 1973.

When Tharp’s agent approached Conte about the possibility of Hubbard Street performing some early Tharp dances, he jumped. The $300,000–a sum he thought enormous, especially in light of Hubbard Street’s modest beginnings–turned out to be relatively easy to raise. Ever thrifty, Conte points out too that “the $300,000 covers everything: Jenny and Rose, the costumes, the music, all the transportation.”

Are there pressures that come with the excitement of the Tharp project? No, he laughs. Then: “Of course there are, but they’re good pressures.

“There will be people wondering: ‘Why is Twyla Tharp doing this with this company in Chicago?’ We’ll have to prove ourselves; and in a way, we will be set up for criticism, no doubt. Comparisons and whatever.

“But I have confidence. I love it, I love this stuff. And I’m hoping that we do it well, and I think we will if we just do what we normally do and work hard at it. And God knows these dancers are sure workin’ hard. Whew!”

My view of The Fugue so far has been unusual and privileged. From my seat under the ballet bars, with my eyes at knee height, the dancers have loomed over me. I know the nicknames for the different fugues: the Bayadere, the game fugue, the bouncing ball fugue. Seeing the dance over and over, I’ve developed my own favorites: the quick and twitchy 3rd; the 7th, with its syncopated, clockwork look; the inward 9th, when the dancers forget the rules and consult themselves; the stamping 15th, the dancers’ legs like bolts of lightning hitting the ground one after another. And the 20th, with its understated drama.

Leaving my last rehearsal, I’m aware that I won’t see the dance again sitting in a rain of sweat, the dancers’ heads coming to rest on the floor inches from my knee. When I see these people again, onstage, they’ll be small and far away.

Jacob’s Pillow is in the heart of the Berkshires, a popular vacation area, and the festival grounds have the kind of well-groomed rusticity only money can buy. Hubbard Street is performing in the Ted Shawn Theatre, a beautifully designed, sweet-smelling replica of a barn.

It’s August 21, opening night for the women’s Fugue, and I’m sitting in the midst of several hundred strangers, about three-quarters of whom appear to be well-off retired folk, some trailing grandchildren. Most of the rest of the audience are younger dance insiders: students, designers, former dancers, choreographers. Everyone seems to be in good humor, relaxed and ready for a good time.

I’m terrified. Three Hubbard Street dances have preceded The Fugue, and by the time its turn rolls around, I’m positive the audience won’t like it.

That afternoon at the tech rehearsal (a run-through for the lighting), I’d found that the stage mikes, which I was hearing for the first time, picked up not only footfalls but the dancers’ breathing as well. Good, I’d thought; then even onstage The Fugue will have some of the intimacy that made it so exciting in the studio.

But now, after seeing the audience’s reaction to Hubbard Street’s first three dances–hearing their delighted laughter and exclamations, and realizing that for them part of the entertainment package is boffo lighting effects, sexy costumes, and virtuoso dancing–it dawns on me that most people don’t want intimacy from dance. They don’t want to hear grunts, they don’t want to see mental or physical effort. They don’t want ordinary human beings who are simply very good at what they do; they want images of perfect, invulnerable youth and beauty.

I’ve been expecting the lack of music to be a problem, because I’ve been thinking of music as a connecting medium that will be missed. What I don’t realize until just before The Fugue begins is that music, like fancy costumes and lighting, actually distances audiences from dance. It’s another layer between viewer and performer, another disguise for the dancers’ labor. Not only that, but music covers over the audible signs of the audience’s own humanity: coughs, sniffles, snores.

The Fugue begins, and all my fears are realized. The black costumes the women wear, fitted but not revealing, are severe, almost grim. The barn doors exposed at the rear of the stage are decidedly low-tech. Watching The Fugue in the context of the other Hubbard Street repertory, I see it’s not a dance that takes care of its audience: there are no flourishes, no poses, no feats that say “Clap here.” Instead it’s people traveling, somewhat insecurely, through a mysterious, obsessive-looking ritual so complicated it scarcely allows the performer to consider the audience at all. Throughout it I hear coughs and whispered comments about “no music.” I know now what Tharp meant about dancers looking like they’re about to get shot in the back. Though Bataille, Cooksey, and Hilsabeck make no mistakes that I can detect, Cooksey at the beginning of the third fugue wears an expression of terror such as I’ve never seen on any other performer’s face. By the 18th fugue, however, she’s smiling, and smiling big. It’s almost over.

When it is, there’s a long, puzzled pause before the audience begins applauding. I feel I’m the only one in the theater who knows what a tremendous hurdle these dancers have crossed by bringing The Fugue before an audience for the first time. And how far they’ve had to travel to bring it to life at all.

Several days after the Jacob’s Pillow engagement, Cooksey says of The Fugue’s opening night, “I haven’t been that nervous since I joined the company. There’s no music or other people to hide behind if you make a mistake. I was scared to death.” She also confirms the truth of a warning Wright had given the dancers just before the performance: that they would be able to hear the audience’s every cough and sniffle. During one very quiet section in the 16th fugue, Cooksey actually heard one woman whisper to her companion, clear as a bell: “This piece is too long!”

Cooksey had anticipated that the audience wouldn’t like The Fugue. But by the second or third night she performed it, she didn’t care–“I was doing it for me.” The Fugue, she says, is a dance that won’t get stale, that allows the dancer to grow in it. As Wright and Way had told them again and again, and as Cooksey now sees and accepts, this dance will never be perfect. “But,” she says, “it makes for an exciting trip.”

On my third day in the Berkshires, I spent a rainy afternoon at a Shaker settlement, abandoned many years ago by the religious order but kept up now as a museum. The Shakers believed that if you were going to do something, you should do it right, and labored to produce exquisite, plain, useful objects–hand-loomed tea towels, round wooden boxes with lids painstakingly formed and fitted. The Shakers are gone, but the objects remain.

Days later, long after I’ve come home, I remember Tharp calling The Fugue homespun, early American. So much labor has gone into it and goes into it at every performance, yet the result is rather homely. It’s only when you look carefully, at every nail, at every stitch, that you see how lovely it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos.Mike Tappin.