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Twyla Tharp premieres ‘Scarlatti’ at Hubbard Street

TwylTharp (center) working with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago troupe earlier this year. | © Todd Rosenberg

Twyla Tharp (center) working with the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago troupe earlier this year. | © Todd Rosenberg

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◆ Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

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Updated: November 16, 2011 11:13AM

Choreographer Twyla Tharp, as taut as your very last nerve, and as tiny and wound up as a mechanical doll, was perched at the edge of her chair in a Hubbard Street Dance Chicago rehearsal studio last week, her fingers frenetically tapping out musical beats on her thigh.

Moments before, as her dancers prepared to launch into the run-through of “Scarlatti,” the breakneck, 30-minute piece she has created for the company — which is set to eight piano sonatas by the Italian baroque composer whose name is echoed in the work’s title — she gave them a quiet little pep talk. She then issued this advice to a handful of invited guests: “You won’t get the full perspective of the piece here as you will when it’s on stage, so be sure to look at what’s going on at both sides of the studio.”

As in all of Tharp’s work, a great deal is going on, structurally, stylistically and musically. “Scarlatti,” which receives its world premiere Oct. 13-16 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, is a hugely complex and demanding piece, as well as a surprisingly playful and flirty one. And it drives the Hubbard Street dancers to the very limits of their formidable endurance and technical finesse.

“I always danced hard,” said Tharp, now 70. “And while I couldn’t perform this work myself anymore, I know where it is in the body, and I think the dancers appreciate being pushed. They work up to it gradually, and then say ‘Look what I did!’ I’m their coach, their trainer. Dancers are athletes who do what they have to do to accomplish the task.”

Tharp has been an artistic athlete and pitiless taskmaster from the start. Indiana-born and California-bred, she became the quintessential “downtown” dancer-choreographer in New York in the mid 1960s, and soon made her mark as a master of stylistic crossover — mixing and matching classical, jazz and pop music with the vocabularies of ballet, modern and jazz dance.

She has created nearly 150 works during the course of her career — everything from the vast repertoire devised for her own company in the 1970s and ‘80s (with a number of those pieces entrusted to Hubbard Street during the 1990s), to groundbreaking ballets for the Joffrey Ballet (“Deuce Coupe,” set to songs of the Beach Boys), for American Ballet Theater and Mikhail Baryshnikov (“Push Comes to Shove”), and many others. Her dance-driven Broadway shows include “Movin’ Out,” to the songs of Billy Joel, and “Come Fly With Me,” set to Frank Sinatra vocals, which arrives here in a national touring production playing Jan. 10-22, 2012 at the Bank of America Theatre. Tharp also has choreographed such films as “Hair,” “Ragtime,” “Amadeus” and “White Nights.” And along the way she has picked up a Tony Award, two Emmys, the 2004 National Medal of the Arts, a 2008 Kennedy Center Honor and more. She also has become a proud grandmother.

In a chat following last week’s run-through, Tharp laid out the heavily marked pages of the Scarlatti score. (Tharp’s work will be danced to a recording of themusic by Russian-born British pianist, Nikolai Demidenko, whose “natural interpretation” of the composer’s work she admires.)

“The music is in the early sonata form — a very interesting overlay of fugue and chaconne that’s all about repetition, symmetry and perception,” said Tharp, whose mother, a piano teacher, began giving her lessons at the age of two. “There is a beautiful geometry to this music, and that formality has a certain spirituality.”

“I’ve notated every entrance and exit, every grouping of dancers, every sequence of jumping and turning right on the score. I came to work with most of this dance in my head because rehearsal time was limited, and the sooner the dancers have a sense of the whole framework the more they own it.”

Though the work is full of ballet steps, Tharp says she never thinks of things that way.

“It’s shared movement, and here I’ve worked hard to find ‘common man’ movement,” she said. “This is an emotional work, with a sense of joie de vivre and humor. And it’s a fine thing to feel happy.”

For costumes, Tharp has turned to fashion designer Norma Kamali whose jersey outfits in black and white and chartreuse are a mix of solids, stripes, plaids and patterns that will create specific, ever-shifting optical effects depending on the groupings of dancers.

Meanwhile, Tharp is thinking ahead to 2015, the 50th anniversary of her first choreographic effort.

“I’m working with my son to create an online museum,” she said. “Everything of mine is on tape. I owned a video deck as early as 1968. And I now have the opportunity to put a lifetime career into a usable format that can be used as a teaching tool.”

NOTE: Along with “Scarlatti,” Hubbard Street will perform “Walking Mad,” Johan Inger’s zany riff on Ravel’s “Bolero,” and “Arcangelo,” Nacho Duato’s meditation on heaven and hell, to music by Corelli and Scarlatti. Duato, incidentally, is now artistic director of the new Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, and he has invited Hubbard Street to perform there Nov. 15-16.

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