Monday, October 8, 2007


reprinted by permission

Many years ago, during early Sunday morning arts programming on television, a group of young women in jazz shoes occupied a television studio stage. They moved independently, communicating introspectively, their hips swiveling, legs swishing, and spines slipping to the sounds of Bix Beiderbecke.

It was strange and a little disturbing. Who made dances so cool, so sexy and so unexpected? The answer was simple: Twyla Tharp.

This weekend at Zellerbach Hall, the Joffrey Ballet stages one of Tharp's masterpieces, "Deuce Coupe," the opening salvo in Cal Performances' autumn Tharp celebration. In its original form in 1973, "Deuce Coupe" paired the youthful, classically trained Joffrey dancers with Tharp's own ultra-cool company.

The piece was set to a medley of Beach Boys songs -- everything from "Honda" to "Catch a Wave." The combination was incendiary, and a conflagration in the New York dance scene followed.

This time, the 19-part ballet is undertaken by Joffrey Ballet alone. The graffiti backdrop is now a lively, finished artifact (with words like "war" and "peace"), rather than a real-time fabrication as in the original, and the stage is smaller. But the dance is as clear as a bell. Not only is its youthful idealism and silky ingenuity still credible, but "Deuce Coupe" is unobstructed by the turf battles between the two companies that blurred it three decades back. What endures is deceptively effortless genius.

At the epicenter of the work is a figure of a ballerina, performed with chiseled elegance by Heather Aagard, who occupies a pool of silver cool whether she is dancing apart from her pop-colored compatriots or weaving among their luscious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek gyrations. As the songs of youthful yearning and party-going accumulate (don't miss the surreal slo-mo scene), the crowds of dancers come and go, a cross-over takes place: Some of the cool dancers don point shoes and copy the ballerina's steps, and the ballerina loosens her joints.

If you wondered how dance found its way to "Coupe" and where it went after, the Joffrey program tries to answer that, too. Opening the night was the Romantic-era inspiration, "Pas des Déesses" by Robert Joffrey with music by John Field, played live by Paul Lewis on piano. An homage to three great 19th-century ballerinas and their man, it is a showcase for the bravura technique that is at the root of the ballet canon.

Joffrey, who died in 1988, was never a pure classicist, and he was known to flirt with kitsch in his pursuit of elan. "Déesses," in its too broad interpretation of highly restrained and filigreed movement, in its come-hither glances of Valerie Robin and the coy langor of Maia Wilkins, teetered close to sentimentality. Only Jennifer Goodman managed the gestural restraint that defined pure 19th-century ballet form.

"Sometimes It Snows In April" from Laura Dean's 1994 rock ballet "Billboard" (to music by Prince), closed the evening. Moving from linked pairs who touchingly laced the stage space to dancers dancing together alone, culminating in a great pulsing ensemble dance, "Sometimes" ended on a brash but ebullient note: Even when death comes along, the dancing never stops, not even, we suspect, in heaven.

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