Who says the dance boom of the '70s and '80s is over?
Not Lou Conte, artistic director of Chicago's Hubbard Street Company. Indeed, not anyone talented and lucky enough to enjoy a lend-lease program with that madcap choreographer, Twyla Tharp.
Together, Conte and Tharp boast what neither has alone--a 16-year-old performing ensemble, one as attuned to the rigorous discipline of ballet as to a rough-and-tumble pop culture (his) and a body of work that is winningly audacious, hectic, witty, evocative and original (hers).
But their arrangement--Hubbard Street dances Tharp in performances Tuesday and Wednesday at the Pepperdine Malibu campus and Friday and Saturday at UCLA's Royce Hall--did not exactly fall from the skies.
In 1989, Tharp found herself without a troupe for the first time in her choreographic career. Having folded her own dancers into American Ballet Theatre and then having left that company, along with director Mikhail Baryshnikov, she had no steady place to hang her tights, so to speak.
Enter Lou Conte, long a Tharp fan. As a choreographer himself, he knew the downside of not seeing one's works performed. He also knew how valuable his organization and its dancers could be to her, while she was off making a movie (James Brooks' soon-to-be-released musical, "I'll Do Anything,") and writing an autobiography ("Push Comes to Shove").
What's more, he and his co-administrators had been "brainstorming for a way to give our company a shot in the arm," Conte says. "Nothing, we decided, could accomplish that end better than striking up a deal with Twyla."
And Gail Kalver, general manager, joins in that assessment. "Showcasing Tharp brought us a surge of adrenaline--artistically, but also in worldwide attention and bookings."
Thus, Conte's timely invitation to the celebrated choreographer.
"When she came to us, Tharp was feeling directionless," he says. "But after watching our class and rehearsals, she saw that we were of like minds and could uphold the style of her dances."
" 'OK,' she said to the dancers. "You guys have passed.' "
Conte says he gets his greatest confidence "from the knowledge that we can please her."
The company has five Tharp pieces in the repertory: right now, more than any other permanent ensemble. He proudly presents the most recent acquisition, "Nine Sinatra Songs," on this tour (Royce Hall only), along with "The Golden Section" (also a Los Angeles premiere) and "Baker's Dozen." Daniel Ezralow's "SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down" completes the program.
"Twyla has approval over casting," he says, "but she trusts me, and our relationship is based on having common standards. Both of us know that the hardest thing to find in a dancer is that ability to move naturally. It can't be taught."
The Tharp vocabulary can look deceptively easy, what with its slouch-and-collapse informality. But the movement--intricate configurations that can explode at frantic, splintered speeds and that use music with computer complexity--is highly demanding.
To help the Chicagoans get off on the right foot, as it were, Tharp started them with "The Fugue," a primer on how to keep the upper body loose and lax while the legs and feet fly into furiously dense riffs of high precision and staccato accents.
On previous visits here, the company has proved itself worthy, and become more so each time. But the association with the Tharp name has also had its drawbacks, Conte says:
"Presenters and grant committees sometimes forget we carry the same financial burdens as all other performing arts groups--namely, that the struggle to meet payrolls and afford sets and costumes is ongoing. They see dollar signs in the Tharp banner. But that's a misconception."
When the Hubbard Street board of directors decided to back the Tharp project, they did so by putting together a special funding campaign, gaining the corporate support that is often available for brand-name investments only.
Conte, however, used to the typical choreographer's fees, admits that he was "blown away by the figures."
"Suddenly we were in another league," he says. "The first three pieces cost us $300,000, including everything. By contrast, another dance-maker might charge $1,000 per work."
Unlike negotiations among commercial big-time equals, though, those notables who collaborate on small-budget performing arts projects do not try to extract every dollar.
Oscar de la Renta, for instance, who created the chiffon dresses for "Sinatra," has donated his designs, and Santo Loquasto will execute them gratis. The same goes for Sinatra, who asks for no royalties from Hubbard Street.
But the singer does get an artistic quid for his quo : Tharp lays onto each song a wonderfully inventive subtext, be it something to do with nighttime mischief or silly weariness or lush nostalgia.
Meanwhile, no one seems happier about the choreographer's presence than Conte.
"Some who may have dismissed us before look again," he says. "As regard for the Tharp works continues to grow, so do we. And it's awfully nice to be validated."
Hubbard Street Company, 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Smothers Theatre at Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, tickets $25 , call (310) 456-4522; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, UCLA Royce Hall, tickets $9 to $27 , call (310) 825-2101.