Watching the crisp, generous, hard-driving movements of the Chicago-based Hubbard Street Dance Company, you see why Twyla Tharp chose them to keep her signature works alive and kicking.
But her off-balance, seemingly casual style is a tricky one that takes some getting used to. At the Irvine Barclay Theatre Thursday night, “Sue’s Leg” came off fairly creditably, but without the luxurious ease Tharp’s own company used to give it.
The 1975 piece for dancers, set to eight vintage Fats Waller recordings, combines bits and pieces of various kinds of dance and sports activities--turning, sliding, balancing, shadow-boxing--that stop and start with insouciant ease. A line of stumbling dancers weaving in and out of place is liable to suddenly clean up its act and finish a bar of music with a beaming ensemble bow.
But the sudden shifts in direction, and Tharp’s inimitable grab bag of sagging, twisting and jabbing movement, require an invisible private system of weights and counterbalances to keep everything taut and perky.
Krista Swenson--who formerly danced in Tharp’s company--seemed most at ease taking Tharp’s old role. In her first solo, to “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” Swenson’s big loopy turns, the “deflated” knees that slowly brought her down for the briefest of moments, her private way of doodling scraps of round-shouldered movement and the focus or absence of her gaze all looked exactly right.
Claire Bataille (in Rose Marie Wright’s old role), on the other hand, seemed to be working too hard and too tightly, without allowing her body to convey the crazy logic of it all. When she raises her arm and spins around in “Tea for Two,” you miss the suave rambunctiousness that should be there.
Josef Patrick pulled off his big moments--like the slow solo split that ends in a splat at the end of “Please Take Me Out of Jail"--but much of the time he looked overly smooth and careful, without the edge-of-chaos quality Tharp’s choreography calls for.
Ron de Jesus (substituting for Geoff Myers) wore his costume with a scarecrow’s nonchalance and ambled with absent-minded good nature through the role originally made for Tharp dancer Tom Rawe.
The Hubbard Street contingent looked sharp and secure in the rest of the program, which was largely familiar. It included Margo Sappington’s petulant slouch for five women, “Step Out of Love”; Lou Conte’s rousing and stylish jazz extravaganza, “The ‘40s” (music by Ralph Burns and Sy Oliver); Bataille’s and Conte’s thumpingly gymnastic “Line Drive,” and John McFall’s “Tiempo” (a rapid string of quirky--sometimes gimmicky--moves, set to a Stravinsky work for clarinet).
New last year and still powerful was Daniel Ezralow’s “Super Straight Is Coming Down,” a cool parable about yuppie soullessness, with an eerily pounding score by Tom Willems.
Performances continue through today in Irvine; the company offers “Sue’s Leg” in an otherwise different program at UCLA on Friday and Feb. 2.
The Hubbard Street Dance Company continues through tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. Curtain: 8 p.m. Tickets: $20 to $25. Information: (714) 854-4646.