New Twyla Tharp work bites off more than it can dance

Famous writers such as Milton and Dante have added their own "appendixes" to the Bible -- now the most ambitious choreographer of her generation, Twyla Tharp , is doing it.

If Tharp's new dance, "The Catherine Wheel" -- which recently opened her company's four-week run at the Winter Garden -- isn't quite on the mighty order of Milton and company, it certainly strives for cosmic effect. "The Catherine Wheel" gives one almost a physical sensation of the desire to bite off more than can be digested. This 75-minute epic, with a brimstone score by the rock musician David Byrne, fairly reeks of the gamble taken.

Scope of subject isn't the only challenge. It's also the discursive nature of Tharp's narrative, as when the husband and wife suddenly cut from the main business at hand, which is arguing, to give us a short capsule history of social dancing.

The overall rhythm of the dance is challenging too. The episodes seem spliced together by a nervous film editor while the movement itself runs at a steady peak of high intensity. Is Tharp deliberately putting us in a whirlwind of end stops? Does "The Catherine Wheel" mean to haul us around the world in 80 miliseconds?

At any rate, the people in this world have already fallen, and things will get worse before the Paradise of this story line is regained. Central to the cast of characters is a positively awful nuclear family. There is also a figure called the Leader, dressed in red and head of a cadre of Hell's Angels.

The Leader starts the family on the road to their downfall by plucking a golden pineapple from a tree. As the dance proceeds the pineapple keeps appearing in larger size, with larger results. The dancing grows more violent.

The family breaks more taboos. In the most grotesque section, the maid (a black dancer) twists her face into savage distortions of itself. Rampant racism is depicted, and eventually the family bites into what is now a very large and very juicy pineapple. The backdrop turns from black to gold, and all the dancers appear in golden tunics for an extended spell of breathtaking dance: "The Golden Section."

This apostheosis could well be called "Acrobats of God," to borrow the title of a Martha Graham dance. The choreography is full-out bravura, with hints of the circus. Its drive is truly monumental, however. Just as the ripening pineapple leads to increasingly repugnant activity, so does David Byrne's steadily mounting score bid the dancers to expend more energy, more courage, and more knowledge of their craft.

Energy, courage, and knowledge -- these qualities are the key to Paradise, "The Catherine Wheel" suggests. And Tharp works them into the denouement in a choreographically thrilling way. Yet if this last section is sublime, much of the preceding story is ridiculous.

Too much scum is not interesting. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe Tharp's horror show isn't pointed enough. Much of the action hits a middle ground of triviality, accompanied by middling choreography. Tharp's relatively new interest in narrative technique could place her on the threshold of new theatrical expression, but right now one wonders if she's not sacrificing too much dance invention at the altar of the story.

To get at the heart of Tharp, one is better off with the regular repertory of short dances, which alternates with "The Catherine Wheel" throughout the Broadway season.

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