DANCE / Simply, ecstasy

IT IS A religious experience. By the end of In the Upper Room, everyone is ecstatic, including the dancers. Well, Twyla Tharp always says she does 'God's work'. A wondrous classic, the piece will long outlive its great creator. She is one of America's most acclaimed and eclectic modern dance choreographers, and this piece has been wildly received wherever it goes. Last week at the Riverside Studios was no exception.

Two strong women (Amy O'Brien and Allison Brown) from Twyla Tharp Dance are in control. They are soon engulfed by others, who blend and break relentlessly, whipping off and on the stage countless times. The two women, now in red leotards, cool the mood, then the dance takes off again in explosions of movement. The stage burns with tensions between three men, three women; then four men, four women. Tharp's creative juice is flowing so fast that the piece looks as if it is being thrice reinvented before your eyes - her hallmark. Philip Glass's score builds steadily, finally gliding along a giddy plateau. The applause is as much release as appreciation.

There are no embellishments in Riverside's small box studio - it's a come-as-you-are party. There's no curtain, so you watch dancers warm up and, depending where you sit, you can see into the wings. It's all rather fraternal. However, Tharp's couturier dance collection (1979 to 1992) would look better on the catwalk, instead of in a crammed dressing- room. Tharp has not been in this country for 11 years, but the company knew what to expect: it was coming to the Riverside anyway, and extended its run to two weeks after a Los Angeles engagement was cancelled because of the earthquake.

It's also presenting different programmes on alternate nights. Tharp has been working with ballet dancers for the past six years and the traditional Sextet (1992) reflects this. Baker's Dozen (1979), another in the first programme, is a company signature. Tharp wants dancers to try new ways, so you might expect more swagger to the sassiness, more ease in its orderliness, but with this company, Baker's Dozen looks classical.

The second programme is more Tharpish - witty, adventurous, fearless, arty and populist. There are classical resonances, such as the four women who float downstage backwards and on point in Octet, or the faux-naf ode to George Balanchine in As Time Goes By, with dancers pouring on stage. But with men in natty shorts elasticised at the thigh and tops piped round the neck, the piece looks less like Balanchine's Symphony in C than a symphony in seams. Brahms' Paganini is rigorous. Jamie Bishton's dynamism in white makes an optimistic contrast to the pessimism of others in black.

Partnering is reinvented in Nine Sinatra Songs (his most kitsch ones, such as 'Domani'). Men are not passive but manipulative, or rather they try to be, in the struggle for power. Six couples assume characters: one infatuated, another seductive, another reckless, comic and so on. Generally, Tharp and the company are more at one in the second programme: she takes the dancers higher, further, faster - and this exciting troupe is up to the challenge. Don't miss this exhilarating event.

'Twyla Tharp Dance': Riverside Studios, W6, 081-748 3354, Tues to Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

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