American Heroics

          DANCE AFFICIONADOS CAN go on about the exquisite Indian dance forms finding purchase here in the Twin Cities, the lustrous new gems presented by American Ballet Theatre last week, the box office excitement greeting percussive dance here and on Broadway, and the community building potential of site-specific work: Lay listeners will politely nod.


          But mention one choreographer and smiles broaden with recognition. Twyla Tharp spent the '70s and '80s boldly bridging high art and pop culture. She was the first to "package" (her word) dances with designer costumes and haircuts. She choreographed for Hollywood films (Hair, Ragtime, Amadeus), video and television (The Catherine Wheel), and Broadway (Singin' in the Rain). She choreographed for Olympic skater John Curry, Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Lynn Swan, and ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov. She choreographed to music by the Beach Boys, Jelly Roll Morton, Philip Glass, David Byrne, and the songs of Frank Sinatra. Tharp devised a distinctive idiom that combines classicism and vernacular movement with her signature style--loose-limbed and insouciant, with slides, spirals, and juicy, full-bodied energy. She made modern dances for ballet companies, and put modern and ballet dancers in the same piece--the first in high-top sneakers, the latter in toe shoes. Often, she tossed music, medium, and performers together in barrier-breaking combinations. In all of this, Tharp made modern concert dance accessible and popular to the masses.

          Since disbanding her troupe in 1986, Tharp has choreographed for other companies and assembled various touring groups to perform her works. In 1992, she breezed into town with Baryshnikov and other dancers in a program of works called, collectively, Cutting Up. For many of us long in thrall to her crossover genius, prolific output, and aura of self-sufficiency, the choreography was disappointing; it seemed dated, circa '70s Tharp. Now she's back again, this time as THARP!, the show-biz name for a new group of young dancers performing a triptych of new Tharp works without the choreographer herself on stage. Like Tharp, the quintessentially American choreographer who restlessly and endlessly reinvents herself by prismatically absorbing and then reflecting back American pop culture, the works appear as a triptych of Americana.

          The opening dance, "Sweet Fields," is set to music by 19th-century composer William Billings--Shaker spirituals, and a collection of shape-note hymnody. The latter is music based on notation system in which sung sounds are represented by shapes, and pitches are associated with syllables, which was a popular technique in various parts of North America in the early 19th century, currently experiencing a quiet, ardent resurgence among its new practitioners (including the Massachusetts-based Cordelia's Dad, coincidently in town for a performance at the Cedar Cultural Centre this Friday).

          "My family was Quaker, and I have a sense of this music from long ago," Tharp says during a brief phone conversation, adding that the work also represents her choreographic growth in the areas of structure and counterpoint. Meanwhile, the second piece, "66," is set to bachelor-pad music and takes its inspiration from "the road that was very important to my family," Tharp says. "My parents left the Midwest in the late '40s and started businesses in California on Route 66. The highway was very good to us all--it put us through college. So we're very grateful to 66. The work also has to do with optimism and the positive sense of moving forward, which is what that highway represented to this country."

          The evening concludes with "Heroes," set to a symphonic ballet written by Philip Glass and based on David Bowie's legendary album of the same name. "Heroes are something I think all of us in one way or another are concerned with," Tharp says. "And I do think it's something the American culture at this particular moment is really examining."

          "For me, in rethinking what it means to be a hero today, my definition came to be simply the one who takes responsibility," she continues. "It's counter to the romantic notion of heroism--which is perhaps part of where Bowie was coming from, because he was writing in East Berlin in the 1970s, and that vision of heroism had failed in a big way. It was time for me, for myself, to look at the concept of what is heroic behavior. And it came to be he who stands."

          Perhaps along these lines, Tharp decided a while back not to spend her time staging retrospectives and doing reconstructions of her past work. Rather, she chose to put her energy into new work, to "show what I know now." THARP!, she insists, responding to a question about her continual don't-look-back striving for the new and different, is "saying this is the foundation, and this is all necessary to move ahead. One doesn't outgrow one's roots. One grows beyond one's roots." CP

          Tharp! runs October 18-19 at Northrop Auditorium; call 624-2345.

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