The obstacle to successfully choreographing on popular music is that people associate their favorite tunes and musical artists with a very particular time and place. We already have deep and specific images that are unlikely to be met by anyone else’s interpretation. Twyla Tharp’s new Dylan Love Songs didn’t work for me for this and other reasons. I’ve never been a Dylan fan as I’m suspicious of the degree to which he conflates himself with his archetypal characters. It seems to me that there’s a bitter core of self-righteousness at the heart of his words. Putting John Selya out there as a Dylan stand-in wearing a hat and a long black coat made me like it even less. He loomed over everything like a wannabe harbinger in search of a congregation. Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto engaged in a long duet verging on abuse but it only made me shrug because they didn’t seem to be feeling anything. It’s unfortunate but Dylan Love Songs closed the show with a fizzle.

Opening the show was The Raggedy Dancers from 1972. Here too, the burden of popular music arose. The individual sitting next to me remarked that she couldn’t see this dance without thinking of The Sting (1973) which so memorably made use of Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano pieces. The film came later but unequivocally holds the primary place in our minds when we hear anything remotely like The Entertainer rag. I enjoyed Tharp’s musicality in this ballet; the way she went back and forth between quick movement to the syncopated rhythm and the melodic line was especially effective. Her ability to phrase ideas is superb and her trademark slinky-slouchy movement is perfectly suited for ragtime. The highlight here was Kara Chan’s exuberance in Mozart’s variations on the theme “Ah, Vous Dirai-je Maman” which takes Twinkle Twinkle out for a whimsical and bravura spin. Who knew that Mozart and Joplin were kindred spirits?

The Fugue is one of Tharp’s serious pieces, full of big ideas. It is an assertion of her place among the important modern choreographers of her generation and she’s one of the last ones still working along with Paul Taylor and Lar Lubovitch. It was compelling to see how Tharp kept a trio of dancers moving in canon without it seeming merely an academic exercise. Kaitlyn Gilliland, Kara Chan and Reed Tankersley were so fully concentrated. This is a piece that I would like to see a few more times to fully understand it. I don’t think it’s possible to fully absorb it in one sitting.

Nowadays we only see Tharp’s work performed by highly trained dancers with a strong classical ballet background and it gives her work a sharp veneer of sophistication. Lost in these current renditions is the casual insouciance that drew us to her in the first place. Entr’acte featured Tharp playing herself, sort of a meta ballet about choreographing. She goes through the motions of creating a dance to show us how she does it but this is really a dance about her need to get back on stage and remind us that she still has something to say. In this piece, Tharp delivered her steps with a degree of coolness that brought it all back into focus. At 76, Twyla Tharp is still spry and her choreography is such that it doesn’t lose its meaning or significance when it’s performed by older dancers. Watching her move now is a reminder of how much she has affected the landscape of dance during her lifetime. Believe it, she’s still captivating.