Twyla Tharp Dance, Sadler's Wells, London

Still crazy after all these years
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The Independent Culture

When the 22-year-old Twyla Tharp donned goggles and flippers in Tank Dive, her first dance work in 1963, few could have predicted she would soon be queen bee of American modern dance and reign for the next 40 years. But there she still is. Still taking her curtain calls in a miniskirt. Still grazing the stage in that extravagant, verging-on-camp curtsy of hers. Normally, when her company tours, she sends her henchwomen out to do the honours. But apparently she loves London, and graciously breaks her gym routine to make the trip.

For her fans, packing Sadler's Wells to the rafters, she can do no wrong. Even a maladroit change of programme - pulling the suave classic Nine Sinatra Songs in favour of the earnest, music-less The Fugue - was fine by them. I minded, though. I have never been totally won over by Tharp, impressive as her achievements are. Her Billy Joel-tribute show is the toast of Broadway. She has just launched the fourth reincarnation of her own company. No one on earth knows like Tharp how to meld the precision of classical dance with the juicy hip-thrust of showbiz. Yet, for me, craft overdominates heart in her pieces. I'm impressed but rarely ever moved.

And so it proves on her latest visit, introducing a fresh cast of seven dancers who include Matthew Dibble, ex-Royal Ballet, who turns out to be quite a star, and the remarkable Charlie Hodges, whose fabulous virtuosity turns an unusual body type to advantage. Tharp is clearly a magnet for talent, and it is individual performances that linger in the mind.

I fell in love with Dibble in the course of the duet, Known by Heart, that opened the programme - a neoclassical sparring match so taut and finely detailed that by the end of 15 minutes you feel you're inside the two dancers' skins. Donald Knaack's junkyard score recorded on old tin pans and mailboxes adds a good-time, Caribbean feel, as Lynda Sing, dancing on pointe, skids and poses her way through a gamut of ballet steps punctuated by karate chops. Dibble, for his part, alternates cheekily between Charles Atlas pec-flexing and twinkle-toes footwork. The clarity of detail takes your breath away. Yet I quickly tired of all the mugging for laughs. Does Tharp think we'll get bored if it's not funny? Her craft is so pure and dazzling it really isn't necessary.

That said, I find The Fugue, a unisex trio in shirtsleeves and brogues from 1970, cerebral to the point of dullness. I seem to remember this piece worked better the last time Tharp showed it here, when the stage surface was properly wired for sound. The whole point is that the myriad dynamic gradations between stamp and slide, tap and shuffle, provide both structure and soundscape. We're told the dance is built on a fiendish system of 20-count cycles, which I have to take on trust. Even so, the effect is less interesting than Tharp thinks.

Westerly Round, a more recent piece, sees the choreographer back in jokey mode in a blithe quartet for three boys and a flirt (the lovely Emily Coates) who can't decide if she wants to keep things innocent or not. Hoofing American square-dance patterns underlie what is still essentially ballet-and-then-some. Full of life, packed with character, it works a treat as a show-off number with a smidgen of story attached. But somehow Tharp never quite warms your cockles in the way Mark Morris does in this vein.

The outright winner of the evening was also the most ambitious. Surfer at the River Styx has all the impact of Tharp's most athletic classics yet enters virgin territory, merging ballet with the liquid torso and bullish bounce of hip-hop. Loosely based on the Greek story of the Bacchae (very loosely indeed), its main achievement is to provide a competitive showcase for its two male stars, Dibble's killer fouettés throwing down the gauntlet to Hodges' helicopter turns. Their stamina is phenomenal. They give Tharp - and us - their souls.