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Twyla Tharp Debuts With New Troupe

What goes around comes around, even for choreographer Twyla Tharp, who is famous for never looking back on her more than 30-year trajectory through the dance world.

Tharp has returned to the company mode - albeit in a new model - with Tharp!, a new troupe of dancers that is touring the United States and overseas this fall and winter and booking international dates for the next two seasons.

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Since Tharp closed her first company in 1988, she's been constantly creating new pieces for a variety of organizations including the American Ballet Theatre, the Boston Ballet, and the Royal Ballet of England. Interestingly, though, this experience has helped her better appreciate the significance of having dancers of her own.

She explains: "I needed to do pieces that I couldn't find a place for and to work in a different way, to work more fundamentally, which isn't possible when one goes in to work on another company and has to negotiate with all their other schedules and requirements."

Tharp operates differently with her new troupe in some significant ways: First of all, Tharp's relationship to these performers is one of mentor, teacher, and creator, but not colleague. In the original company, founded in 1965, Tharp was front and center as performer, as well as chief and only choreographer. This time, Tharp seems ready to retire from the stage.

Equally important is the structure: a business deal with the dancers on salary only for performance and rehearsal weeks, rather than on permanent contract. This arrangement frees Tharp to take on other assignments without having to support overhead expenses.

It's up for question whether the dancers will stay loyal in this arrangement or whether it allows Tharp to nurture these talents into engagingly idiosyncratic individuals as she did with her former troupe. In Chicago last month, the 13 performers appeared young and energetic but, except for three of the men, Roger Jeffrey, Shawn Mahoney, and Andrew Robinson, they haven't formed strong stage personalities.

Her new works contain some strikingly original passages but none of them is top-line "Tharpiana." The centerpiece of the program is "Heroes," with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, costumes by Kasia Walicka-Maimonewith, and a score by Philip Glass, who based his music on the late-1970s album by David Bowie and Brian Eno.

For the most part, the piece is dark. Glass's music of murky, looped chords builds to a bright climax, and Tipton's design keeps the stage in shadows. It brings to mind the earlier Glass-Tharp-Tipton collaboration, the superlative "In the Upper Room," but "Heroes" is too literal in its deployment of the central characters and too densely knotted to make a similar impression.

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Tharp describes "Heroes" as "my own feelings about what hero means nowadays, which is simply he who stands, the one who takes responsibility." The constant in "Heroes" is a phalanx of men - Jeffrey, Matt Ribera, and Robinson - who take whatever the others dish out.

The program opener, "Sweet Fields," set to a collection of American hymns from William Billins, traditional Shaker songs, and "The Sacred Harp" is a reminder of religion's role in building America. The separation of men and women is a central theme, with genders kept apart until the George Balanchine-like ending. The men represent ritual; the women dance out the lightness of grace, while Tipton's lighting seems to project their radiance. Norma Kamali's costumes include white floating coats for women and shirts for men, to make the company look like flying angels.

Tharp's third new work, "66," is a pastiche of vignettes from post-World War II American life. Tharp explains its meaning for her: "It has to do with the highway in the late 1940s ... and that spirit of 'we can get ahead' and 'we can make things better for our kids.' That sort of dream was fulfilled for my family by Highway 66." She has assembled a cast of characters that includes a jiving couple, an old man, and two life-size rubber tires that we have seen before in her work. The best episode is a solo for Shawn Mahoney that transforms him into a movie-inspired dance man, with a smile and an inspired sense of joie de vivre.

* Remaining tour dates include Jan. 7-12, Philadelphia; Jan. 14-15, Princeton, N.J.; Jan. 17-18, Hanover, N.H.; Jan. 20, Burlington, Vt.; Jan. 24-25, Pittsburgh; Jan. 27, Durham, N.C.; Jan. 29, Sarasota, Fla.; Jan. 31-Feb. 1, Nashville.

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