American Ballet Theatre's spring season took a break from Ratmansky with a tribute to a choreographer whose marriage with ABT has been a match made in heaven. Twyla Tharp formed her own company in 1966, but in 1988 Tharp's company merged with ABT. Tharp's style (a mishmash of ballet, modern dance, pop idioms and anything else in the kitchen sink) meshed well with ABT, which has never really had a cohesive company style. An evening of Tharp works proves that this marriage is still going strong, as ABT dancers never looked better than when dancing Tharp.

<i>The Brahms-Haydn Variations</i> © Marty Sohl
The Brahms-Haydn Variations
© Marty Sohl

The triple bill started off with maybe the weakest work. Brahms-Haydn Variations (2000) is very pretty, and a nice mix of classical ballet with some of Tharp's favorite moves – the crane lifts, dancers doing a floor-touching penchée. Yet the music (Variations on a Theme for Haydn) was a poor match for Tharp's hyper-kinetic style. It is one of those pleasant but boring ballets. With that being said, ABT's dancers acquitted themselves very well. A standout was the tiny Sarah Lane, whose dark hair and furious concentration anchored the piece. Hee Seo whose emotional palette is rather limited found her groove in this ballet. It allowed her to do what she does best, which is dance with her pretty, lyrical style.

Deuce Coupe (1973) is getting its company premiere despite being the oldest work on the bill. The conceit of the ballet is to have one "classical girl" (Katherine Williams) do a series of academic classical exercises while the rest of the company rocks out to a medley of Beach Boys songs. Eventually (spoiler alert!) the dancers become more and more classical. The look of the ballet is quite dated – the scenery and costumes by Santo Loquasto look like a community theater production of Hair with the graffiti backdrop and the orange bell-bottoms. And the idea of classical ballet fusing with modern dance has been done and redone and no longer seems as revolutionary.

<i>Deuce Coupe</i> © Gene Schiavone
Deuce Coupe
© Gene Schiavone

But the dancers thrived. ABT dancers often struggle with fifth position ballets. They look like a different company when adopting Tharp's style. Katherine Williams looked like a Degas dancer and danced the same way one would imagine dancers danced in Degas' time – pretty, academic, a bit dull. My mind was more drawn to the excellent "Beach Boys" dancers. Stella Abrera who usually exudes such regal classicism personified 70s cool, and James Whiteside stole every scene he was in as he embodied (rather than imitated) the loosey-goosey "downtown" dance style. Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell were two other dancers one noted for their energy. Luis Ribagorda seemed to be dancing in his own little world and that was the charm.

<i>In the Upper Room</i> © Marty Sohl
In the Upper Room
© Marty Sohl

The evening closed with the thrilling In the Upper Room (1988). The propulsive Philip Glass score, the smoky decor, and the nonstop energy in this 40-minute ballet made the applause at the end cathartic. Again, Tharp brought new accents out from dancers. The male sneaker stomping trio of Calvin Royal III, Duncan Lyle and Cory Stearns were amazing – they kickboxed, ran, jumped, and at the end of the evening it looked like they could do it all over again. The male "classical" trio of Joo Woo Ahn, Arron Scott, and Gary Pogossian were not as strong – they didn't have the upper body strength to pull off those acrobatic lifts without looking effortful. Stephanie Williams, Wanyue Qiao and Catherine Hurlin were wonderful as the female sneaker stompers. Christine Shevchenko as the main red dress/red pointe shoes girl brought an implacable calm to the storm. She never tired, she never flagged, but she also never seemed propelled by the same demented energy that drove the other dancers onstage to launch themselves into yet another exhausting series of kicks, jumps, turns or lift. In the lift by the arms where she is lifted in between two men and dives face first into the arms of another man, she dropped herself with a speed that was vertigo-inducing.

At the end of the evening, Tharp herself appeared with the dancers. The roar from the crowd was more like for a rock star than a beloved choreographer. But as this wonderful program proved, all these years later Twyla Tharp can still make ballet look cool.

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