French Dancers Draw Special Praise From a Hard-Core Perfectionist

TWYLA THARP views the future of dance warily, even though her ideas are the biggest in the business. I'm talking to her in a San Francisco caf'e the day after an immensely successful all-Tharp gala, but she refuses to commit herself about her new association with American Ballet Theater. ``It's too soon to tell,'' she says guardedly. Not that ABT hasn't given her a fine welcome. Some 30 dancers are involved in this season's creations and revivals, in addition to the seven who followed her when she disbanded Twyla Tharp Dance to join ABT last August. She's gotten full productions by her chosen designers, with singers, musicians, glamorous exposure - the works.

But Tharp isn't that impressed. What she doesn't know is how the dancers will respond to her demands over the long run. Tharp's movement vocabulary is the antithesis of the collected, extended, intermittently brilliant lexicon of most classical ballets. Speed is essential, combined with accuracy in timing, a flexible use of the whole body, an appetite for traveling through space, and a knack for acting and dancing at the same time.

Before preparing for ABT's cross-country tour, Tharp squeezed in a revival and a highly successful new Bach ballet for the Paris Opera, and Tharp loved the French dancers. ``They have a real tradition, and a respect for it,'' she says. ``And what wonderful dancers!'' It's not that she doesn't like their ABT counterparts, but Tharp has some skepticism as to whether she can overcome the longstanding administrative confusions at ABT.

Technical problems have harassed some of her efforts. A comic collage of pop art and dance styles, ``The Bum's Rush,'' was deleted from the gala program because the sets didn't work right at the ballet's Chicago premi`ere. ``In the Upper Room'' was rendered almost invisible by malfunctioning fog machines.

As we talk, people come shyly over to the table and thank her for bringing her ballets to San Francisco, giving them so much pleasure. After each one leaves, she looks embarrassed and proud at the same time. Then she starts talking again about how much better she thinks things could be. In a way, her whole career since 1965 has been a series of strategies to outwit the innate insecurities of American dance. She's done a pretty good job.

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