06/06/2008 01:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

CULTURE ZOHN: Twyla Tharp Plays Around

On Tuesday afternoon, unexpectedly in New York for 24 hours, I was lucky enough to catch the final dress rehearsal of Twyla Tharp's new ballet, Rabbit and Rogue which premiered at the American Ballet Theater that night.

I had just been given a sneak preview at Molissa Fenley's enchanting makeshift studio at the American Academy in Rome (more on this next week) and seen how just two dancers and a choreographer can also make dynamic work on a shoestring budget.

But I was honored to be able to catch this new Tharp in the much grander Metropolitan Opera house too. Long a fan of Tharp's (though not of every end result), I am riveted by her process no matter what turns up, remembering an interview she once gave that mentioned how the notes for every piece were catalogued in a very sophisticated file system, forcing me to re-think my own notes for abandoned projects that I eventually turn over to the local Shred it man who comes by to relieve me of my misery with his portable machine which grinds up years of clipppings, photos, inquiry letters and the like.

Tharp is not a quitter, the very definition of someone who is willing to go back and try things and not fear the critical machine that tends to roil around her, most recently slamming her Broadway effort.

Photo: by Rosalie O'Connor
American Ballet Theatre

I was at the first performance of Push Comes to Shove, also ABT, with Baryshnikov, a playful piece for the full company that brought a smile to my lips each time I saw it. They are still doing Sinatra Songs and Deuce Coupe in various seasons, the Sinatra one of my all-time favorites, a romantic, twinkly, loving hommage to that master crooner. And I saw Tharp's various smaller companies over the years, beginning at the very beginning. Her prodigious output, her refusal to bow to critical response, her ability to inspire companies to keep working with her because of her supremely high work ethic for dancers and total devotion to them has set her apart from many of her co-choreographers who have had spottier careers.

Tharp sat a few rows in front of me on the edge of her seat next to her ballet mistress for the piece in her signature white man tailored shirt, jeans and white sneakers. She was radar focused and yet seemingly relaxed.

Photo: by Rosalie O'Connor
American Ballet Theatre

The piece, Rabbit and Rouge is a mid-sized piece that takes as its theme the jesting and jousting of two male dancers and as its variations, the interplay they have with others. Tharp likens it to left brain, right brain and in a reverse on Jerome Robbin's Goldberg Variations, a dancer in modern dress appears and gradually in pairs, trios and ensembles, both the dress and the technique become more classical, Greek even, with shades of Isadoras counterposed with sexy disco girls and guys in shiny lame all by Norma Kamali with her signature forties halter neckline swimsuits and dolman sleeves studding the other layers.

The score by Danny Elfman is lush and cinematic, heart swelling and tuneful as well as rousing. Elfman paced up and down the Met aisles mingling with the ghosts of Puccini and Philip Glass whose operas had been in repertory during the recent season. Don't tell me artists EVER get jaded or over opening night jitters no matter how successful they are and as many times as they've done it; each time is the first time.

Photo: by Rosalie O'Connor
American Ballet Theatre

I was enthralled from the moment the first dancer came on stage to the very finish. It's a fast-paced creation with dancers appearing and disappearing from the wings, a perfect wide spot showcasing their lithe bodies and technique. Like Robbins in his journeys between the great White way and the way of ballet, Tharp has been informed by her Broadway work and the ballet reflects that easy, sexy, playfulness, almost vaudevillian at times, with a little Ballroom and Pulcinella thrown in for good measure.

But it's not ballet lite by any means. It's appealing and technically marvelous in a formal way too, proving you can tiptoe round your man and then surprise him by coming up from behind and tapping him on the shoulder or form a steam engine with your buddies that chugs in reverse. It goes down easy marked by pshaw and aw schucks moments but also keeps you on the edge of your seat, one lift so exciting that it took my breath away.

Alastair Macaulay, the ballet critic of the New York Times, who seems to find almost nothing good about anything he sees and whose nit-picky, show-off-y reviews are the bane of many a dancer's existence, was disappointed in it. I wonder how the New York Times can possibly think a) that readers care about highly technical, formal nuances and or b) that we will be impressed by his hatchet jobs.

As a former dancer, I can understand and admire his grasp of technique, and even applaud the fact that he is paying such close attention. But almost everything goes negative--and the rare praise is always layered with so many buts that one resists reading the reviews, knowing each time that his connoisseurship will land in disaster. He is as vicious with the New York City Ballet as ABT, and even the companies he just reviewed in Europe, though he seemed kinder to them than to those on his local beat (He is British). Possibly he thinks his churlish reviews will goad managements into making a change.

Though Macaulay sets the bar high, Tharp and company have easily stepped over it, watusi-ed under it and just plain tossed it away.

There are only a few performances left of Rabbit and Rogue this week and then the company will perform it again in Orange County in August. Do yourself a favor and try to get a ticket: it is a wonderful ballet, filled with ambitious, sparkly Twyla-isms, one where she is in perfect synchronicity with her talented collaborators, Kamali and Elfman, and where their high spirits have translated into something that really works.