With Twyla Tharp, sometimes the story counts more than the steps

Twyla Tharp's choreography has always been a feast of movements opening out of movements. So much goes on so wittily that you're afraid to look away. But in a week of Boston performances -- their last before repairing to New York to do a Broadway remake of ``Singin' in the Rain'' -- what stood out in the works of Twyla Tharp Dance were the stories they told. That's not to say the dancers have given up moving like boneless ballet dancers kidnapped by a rock tour. ``Nine Sinatra Songs'' contains some of the trickiest steps she has ever put together. But ``Sorrow Floats,'' danced by a clown and three women, is a parable about isolation, imagination, and control; the moral indignation behind ``Short Stories'' almost overpowers the dance.

``Nine Sinatra Songs,'' with the lushest choreography, nonetheless shows how Tharp's dances have begun to be about more than dance. To nine Sinatra songs, the company does seven duets, the ensemble coming in to Sinatra's ``My Way.'' The men are in tuxedos, the women in glamorous dresses by Oscar de la Renta. But there's more here than a superb ballroom exhibition: Each duet is about two characters. The choreography isn't just brilliant, it's informative. It tells so much about the partnerships whirling before us that we barely see it as choreography and almost believe this is how people dance at parties.

To ``Softly, As I Leave You,'' Shelley Washington and Robert Radford move so smoothly it doesn't seem the slightest bit odd that Washington leans over so far in Radford's capable grip that, although she's still on tiptoe, her face is inches from the floor. You get so caught up in their seamless partnering and long stretches that Washington lying face down is, well, a logical extension. Tharp has stayed within the form of ballroom dancing, putting in her own moves so subtly you forget to gasp.

The most compelling dance is Tom Rawe's with Shelley Freydont to ``That's Life.'' It's a fight. Instead of lifting her, Rawe grabs her at the armpit, shoving her upward. ``I've been a puppet, a poet, a pauper, a piper, a clown, and a king,'' Sinatra sings, and Rawe pulls her head up, puppet-like, and pushes it down, then his head jerks up. They look like a toy, except that they are also humans locked in combat.

At one point she's on the floor. No matter, he holds her hand and turns, stepping over instead of around her. She looks tough or resilient enough to take all this bullying, although you wonder why it is he and not she who walks away from the dance. But then, as he is putting his coat on as if to forget the whole thing, she suddenly dives at him. Startled, he catches her just in time. It's a perfect ending. She has triumphed. Gambling that he would catch her (which seems to have surprised him as much as the audience) she has turned the dance back into a partnership.

In swoop the other dancers to ``My Way.'' Freydont holds out a foot and Rawe meekly jumps over it. Their dance is part of the ensemble, and he graciously, if somewhat stiffly, holds a hand out for her to turn from.

Each couple dances in their own style, but when Sinatra sings the words ``my way'' all the women get lifted. Not in unison, but one by one, as a real roomful of dancers would do it. The story continues and you see an ensemble made up of distinctly individual characters, as women roll over the backs of their partners and lifts go off like fireworks.

It's hard to imagine the choreographer who made this idyll of graceful partnership producing ``Bad Smells,'' but here is another dance with a story line. The story is disaster. Dressed in shredded bits of paramilitary clothes with mud on their faces, the dancers stagger, shudder, wince, and stomp as if on maneuvers to stressful, percussive guitar music. Rawe stalks them with a video camera. You have to check the image on the screen behind them as he gets in the way. Sometimes the dancers loom sideways, or one crazed face fills the screen. This amplifies the movement. ``Bad Smells'' is a powerful dance, even in our obstructed view. It's like watching a cataclysm on TV news sometime in the future, but it also has a grim grace. Tharp isn't just going for shock value. There is a seriousness here; she is giving us a severe warning.

In Tharp's choreography the dancers always seem to have more to do with each other than with the audience. This is also how plays work. Actors perform in a complete little world of their own. In her recent work, Tharp's dancers increasingly turn to each other, and the stories they dance seem so important that you almost forget that her choreography is telling them -- which all leads to interesting possibilities for ``Singin' in the Rain.''

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