Twyla Tharp still packs more movement into less time with a greater sense of flow--indeed, a kind of throwaway ease--than anybody in dance. But 10 days before her 60th birthday, this former postmodern maverick who became a crossover sensation and then an iconoclastic ornament of the ballet world is recycling her past innovations without the technical range she used to command.
At the Ahmanson Theatre, where her new Twyla Tharp Dance began a four-performance engagement Thursday, her six classically trained dancers occasionally jog, slide, twitch their feet or spin on their behinds. But they lack the articulate torsos of modern dancers, and when Tharp assigns them deliberately rough and raw attacks--her closest approximation of modernism--they haven't the weight to make it matter.
Danced to tape, her "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K. 581" toys with the interplay of idioms but uses modernism primarily as a joke: spasms of flexed feet or head wagging that shatter the mock-serene balleticisms on view. Obviously "Push Comes to Shove" played the same game 25 years ago, but what interests Tharp today is not comedy based on undercutting classical pretense (predictable and even reflexive), but bold partnering adventures.
With Elizabeth Parkinson and Ashley Tuttle in soft slippers (no pointe shoes), Tharp exploits daring off-center, off-balance supports that surge directly into experimental lifts. Some gymnastic shifts of position midway through a lift are so improbable that Tharp makes them deliberately awkward: another joke. But John Selya's awkwardness in his complex manipulations of Tuttle don't always look deliberate. Keith Roberts, however, manages to effortlessly pull Parkinson up over his shoulders, time after time, and then soar into buoyant turning and jumping combinations as if his technical capacities were limitless.
When Benjamin Bowman invades the Selya/Tuttle partnership, Tharp runs happily amok, sending Tuttle climbing up Bowman's back and sitting on Selya's shoulders, for instance, while maintaining a majestic ballerina demeanor, as if Princess Aurora were dancing a stately promenade with her princes.
In contrast, "Surfer at the River Styx" finds Tharp experimenting not with technique but with narrative content, introducing tantalizing fragments of a story into what initially seems a forceful, "In the Upper Room"-style showpiece set to chugging, clanging instrumental textures by Donald Knaack, played live.
You may piece the evidence together differently, but Selya is clearly afraid of or bedeviled by two sets of figures in black (Tuttle and Parkinson, Bowman and Alexander Brady), while the high-flying Roberts faces his own crisis but seems to be the dominant force in the piece. Not only are his endless series of pirouettes the major technical exclamation point in the choreography, but, by the end, everyone ends up in his gray costume colors.
The mime and mugging that define the confrontational incidents in the work aren't especially artful; you may prefer to ignore them and concentrate on the radical compression of steps and images that define this style of Tharp dancing, and give the cast its finest opportunities.
Tharp deploys everyone in layers here, with Tuttle/Parkinson and Bowman/Brady usually mirroring one another like dancing bookends. But the linear elegance of Roberts offers a dramatic stylistic contrast with the broken lines and wilder, anticlassical manner adopted by Selya.
The large-scale playoffs between ballet and modern dance that have energized Tharp's works from "Deuce Coupe" through "In the Upper Room" may have now shrunk to the difference between Selya sitting down on his pirouettes and Roberts pulling up for his. But the amazing skill and velocity of the dancing carry you along to an ending that comes from nowhere but launches a thunderous ovation.
Pleasing an audience is the first step to maintaining a permanent company, and the latest incarnation of Twyla Tharp Dance clearly delivers. The question, however, as it reaches its first anniversary, is whether she can find anything genuinely new for it to do. The world premiere scheduled for tonight may provide an answer.
Twyla Tharp Dance performs "Known by Heart Duet," "Westerly Round" and "Hammerklavier" tonight at 8 and Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Ahmanson Theatre, L.A. Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. $15-$60. (213) 365-3500.