Twila Tharp’s Kinetic Meditations

Twyla Tharp’s motor runs fast. Probably the most famous American modern dance-maker since Martha Graham, she can come off as brusque, even intimidating. Her spiky personality is partly the defense of an admittedly shy person. But it is also that she is so brainy, and so busy, that she can’t afford to suffer fools gladly.

Still, the choreographic chameleon seemed fairly relaxed, even jocular during last month’s London press conference to promote the European tour of “Tharp!” Composed of two loosely autobiographical pieces balanced with a more abstract, kinetic meditation on heroism, this opus will have traveled to Israel, Germany, Italy and the south of France before it materializes in Paris at the end of July. It comes to foreign shores trailing encomia. Upon its world premiere last autumn, the trilogy was hailed in the San Francisco Chronicle as “cause for an all-American celebration. ”

Now 55, Tharp herself has been dubbed a quintessentially American choreographer. “It’s who I am,” she says. ‘Whaddaya gonna do about that? I was born in Indiana. My parents were Quakers. I grew up at a drive-in theater in Southern California. I went to an American college [Barnard], and I have never tried to be an expatriate. The furthest I’ve gotten is to study ballet!”

There are no toe shoes in “Tharp!” Instead it’s a stream of kinetic beauty and quirkiness, contagiously upbeat, challengingly athletic and contemplative by turn.

Influenced by her Quaker background, “Sweet Fields” is a liltingly lovely, sometimes frisky study of communal harmony and spirituality featuring floating white costumes by designer Norma Kamali. The dance itself is Tharp’s response to the rhythms and meanings inherent in 10 pieces of seamlessly stitched-together music, including Shaker chorals and other early American songs.

Of “66,” Tharp says, mostly tongue-in-cheek, that it grew out of “the very sad fact that I was never invited to a single high school dance. I couldn’t dance. I was daunted. I’m sure this has marred my entire adult life. I’m sure it’s had an influence on my entire dance career, because it’s forced me to examine partnering.” It’s the lightest piece on the bill, an easy-to-take, kitsch-encrusted tribute to the famous highway on which her family traveled from the Midwest to the promised land of the West Coast when she was a child. The result is a spry reflection on the pop culture roots upon which she has based so much of her work, a sort of road-movie-musical. At its center is a storyline about a young couple who meet, connect, break up and reconcile. The soundtrack is a bright and bizarre selection of “bachelor pad” music topped by a buoyantly schmaltzy Dean Martin vocal.

The third piece, “Heroes,” is made of sterner stuff. Tharp says it’s partly based on her thoughts on heroism through the ages, and her contemporary perception of a hero as someone who stands tall and accepts responsibility. For the dancers, it’s a blistering workout, a test of their limits and control. Call it desperation by design. The music here is Philip Glass’ richly symphonic rendition of musical themes gleaned from the David Bowie and Brian Eno collaboration, “Heroes.”

Tharp, a dyed-in-the-wool Yank with a taste for eclectic music (from Fats Waller to Josef Haydn) is well-known in European dance capitals. Apart from being well-traveled and in demand, she is one of the most demonically driven dance artists ever. A perfectionist even in childhood, Tharp maintained a grueling daily regimen of school and extracurricular classes – tap, ballet, modern, baton, acrobatics, violin. The versatility and stamina she acquired then served her well when she became a 1970s dance sensation.

On the heels of mathematically rigorous works from the preceding decade, Tharp and her fluid troupe infused dance with a juicy, jazzy democracy. Through complex yet fun pieces, she amply demonstrated that pop and high art could blissfully co-exist. As her deceptively casual dancers swooped, slid, swerved and shifted gears in trademark Tharp style, the contradictions between the individual and the collective, freedom and control, the vernacular and the classical movement, the Beach Boys and Bach, were catalogued and embraced.

Apart from choreographing the films “Hair” and “Amadeus,” Tharp is perhaps best known as the woman whose dance “Push Comes to Shove” secured Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Americanization. They were briefly lovers at the time of the piece’s creation in 1976. Its title also came in handy as the name of her 1992 autobiography.

Since disbanding her gloriously original company in 1988, Tharp has been a willing victim of creative homelessness, passing through such swank terpsichorean abodes as the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. For the moment she is happy to focus on the youngsters assembled for “Tharp!” This new collection of 11 dancers, most of whom seem to be hovering around age 20, has been labeled by producer Jedediah Wheeler as “a cash-and-carry dance ensemble designed to support the creation of new work without relying solely on precarious funding sources.” Explaining their recruitment, Tharp says, “I was looking for people who were very trained technically and in a mind to go out and conquer the world. It was that kind of energy I wanted.”

Despite her new epic’s ego-blasted title, Tharp hasn’t much patience with her own cultural canonization. Would she ever wish to be unfamous? “I don’t know what famous is. I’m interested in working as much as I can, as well as I can, period. If whatever that is called helps me to do that, fine. If it gets in the way, it’s no good.” She’s no more comfortable with attempts to thematically summarize her 30-plus-year career. “One’s gotta be dead before you can make the proper analysis. Anything else is selling the work short.”

Twyla Tharp Dance Company, “Tharp!” July 26-29, 10pm, Palais Royal, Cour d’Orléans, 1er, 80-120F, tel: