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BALLET REVIEW : Twyla Tharp Looks Show-Bizzy in ‘Everlast’ at ABT Opening

Times Music/Dance Critic

Twyla Tharp, that tough little bird of iconoclastic dance, has joined the Establishment. She has disbanded her own brazen band of modernists and taken on the title of artistic associate with American Ballet Theatre.

The kind push came to a very gentle shove on Tuesday, when the company opened its annual mini-season in the vast and unfriendly spaces of Shrine Auditorium.

The occasion turned out to be a classic demonstration of ABT eclecticism. A relatively small, patently enthusiastic audience registered approval for every hop, skip and jete .

First came the arabesque orgy of the Shades episode from “La Bayadere,” then a reasonable facsimile of Balanchine’s ancient and still marvelous “Prodigal Son” (1929). For the climactic piece de resistance , the company offered the local premiere of Tharp’s latest crossover opus, “Everlast,” a.k.a. “A Gypsy Run-Through.”

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The opus emerged sweet, amusing, cheekily nostalgic and not very magnum. The would-be climax remained a bit anticlimactic. For all its show-bizzy cleverness, the piece proved resistable.

Tharp seems to have refused to turn another cheeky ballet. There’s the rub. She has forsworn adventure in favor of mush.

Whether the change represents a significant aesthetic swing or just a passing bagatelle remains to be seen. We’ll see more, no doubt, when she guides Mikhail Baryshnikov’s gallant gang through their first all-Tharp bill tonight.

“Everlast"--don’t ask me, or the program, to explain either the title or its seemingly interchangeable subtitle--is fun. Make no mistake.

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It tells a neat little triangular tale about a handsome boxing champ, his doting fan in boyish drag, and a rich widow’s beautiful daughter. Flapping around the Palace Theater in 1919, it fuses vaudeville manners with balletic mannerisms and adds comic-mime punctuation.

The point of departure for James Jones’ scenario is confusing and inconsistent as well as flimsy. Apparently, some talented kids have gathered on the stage between performances. Deciding that they gotta dance, dance, dance, they improvise an elaborate show for themselves. Not since Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. . . .

The musical impetus for this quaint, politely zany period piece comes courtesy of Jerome Kern. In fact it comes courtesy of 16--count ‘em, 16--terrific tunes. The number is generous for so vapid a venture.

The songs, both popular and esoteric, span “Bullfrog Patrol,” “Left All Alone Again Blues,” “How’d You Like to Spoon with Me” and “I Told Every Little Star.” A honky-tonk pianist and three badly amplified singers inhabit a corner near the proscenium. Jack Everly conducts Michael Dansicker’s slick arrangements and William Brohn’s deft orchestrations in the pit.

Still, one looks center-stage for the silver lining. Tharp has concocted fleet footwork for Kevin O’Day, the charming, kinky-haired champ. She has rehashed beguiling wily-waif routines for Anne Adair as the fan who eventually gets him. Most interesting, she has devised very subtle, deceptively complex ballerina maneuvers for the gorgeous Susan Jaffe as the jilted socialite.

The supporting cast includes Shelley Washington and Kathleen Moore as a pair of snazzy-jazzy busybodies, Georgina Parkinson as the sexy scheming matriarch and Richard Colton as the cigar-chomping trainer. Everyone works hard, oozes character. The soft shoe and the old hat coexist happily with the ballet slipper.

Santo Loquasto’s picturesque sets, flying flats and cute costumes are nifty. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is spiffy.

Still, “Everlast” doesn’t sustain lasting interest. One wants Tharp to be flip, not reverent. One yearns for a little expressive danger, some illuminating clashes of periods, ideas and styles. Perhaps there is more here than meets the jaded eye on first viewing.

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The revival of “Prodigal Son” seemed a bit soft at the articulative edges. The passage of time may be tainting Balanchine’s stylized motions and angular gestures with too much realistic sentiment. Even so, one still can be overwhelmed by the choreographic invention, by the splashy Rouault designs and by Prokofiev’s genial score.

Danilo Radojevic manages to be lithe, eager, vulnerable and agonized in the title role, without casting much of a personal stamp upon it. This, of course, takes time. Cynthia Gregory remains an icy, mock-seductive, exceptionally long-limbed Siren. Michael Owen, like all Fathers in this context, is strong, wise and statuesque.

In the “Bayadere” ceremonies, Cynthia Harvey returned from a sabbatical with the Royal Ballet and looked regal and willowy but oddly nervous. Andris Liepa, her potentially flamboyant partner from the Bolshoi, seemed tentative and self-absorbed. Perhaps they were distracted by a sticky, squeaky floor, not to mention an incessant hum from the lighting booth.

Under the circumstances, the primary honors here fell to the stellar subsidiary Shades (Amanda McKerrow, Deirdre Carberry and Christine Dunham), to the suave corps de ballet and the excellent orchestra conducted by Emil de Cou.


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