Forget the Story: Twyla’s No Talk, All Action

When it comes to reviewing ballet, publishing an anthology of the 20th century’s best lyrics, editing President Clinton’s memoirs, or matters concerning collecting vintage plastic handbags, I always defer to the superior scholarship of Robert Gottlieb. Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, set to Billy Joel’s hit songs, is a dance show on Broadway, and Mr. Gottlieb’s enjoyable review appears below. Here are just a few thoughts of my own on the flawed but most exhilarating show in town:

Ms. Tharp has actually returned pure, elemental dance to Broadway (where dance is supposed to thrive). If you look at the new Broadway musicals, the choreography is either pastiche ( Hairspray , Thoroughly Modern Millie , The Producers ), or kitsch ( Mamma Mia! and the new version of Flower Drum Song ), or irreverent parody ( Urinetown ‘s satire of Jerome Robbins’ rumble in West Side Story ).

All things are parodiable, of course, but it was Robbins who lit the torch of the modern dance era on Broadway, and Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line (who worshipped Robbins and danced in the chorus of the original West Side Story ) who picked up the torch. The sheer inventive power and astonishing athleticism of Movin’ Out is a throwback to that lost era, when dance on Broadway spoke joyfully and emotionally for itself.

Two seasons ago, I wrote of Susan Stroman’s Contact that it was a dance piece masquerading as a musical, and that its Tony Award for Best Musical was absurd. I also felt, against the critical grain, that it was an inferior dance show masquerading as a serious ballet. But let’s not go there again. Ms. Tharp’s Movin’ Out is in a different league.

Her dance show thrives irresistibly in its own right. It “speaks” when words are no longer enough-as characters in musicals break into song when words alone can’t do it for them. I found the fantastic energy and daring of the troupe more striking than any chorus line I’ve seen in years. If the stage had walls, they’d be bouncing off them.

The supreme dancers are classically trained-mesmerizing, showy John Selya of the School of American Ballet; Ashley Tuttle, principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre; Elizabeth Parkinson of the Joffrey; Benjamin G. Bowman of the San Francisco Ballet; and so on. It’s an important reminder for the future of Broadway: The best classically trained dancers possess a bravura level of technical accomplishment that leaves the traditional chorus line wilting.

Their bodies are different. That is, the girls’ are. Except for romantic heroes in ballet and the noble tradition of campy chorus boys on Broadway,male dancers-showbiz or classical-are indistinguishable. They look young and absurdly fit and not necessarily handsome. But a dancer in the Tharp troupe-like the slender, breathtakingly assured Ms. Parkinson, with her legs to the ceiling and her extraordinary, risky physicality-isn’t the kind we usually even see on Broadway. A memorable stand-out in the Fosse revival, she’s a dancer for a new Broadway era, if only Broadway could renew itself.

Twyla Tharp’s ballets have crossed over before, of course-a generation ago with Deuce Coupe to music by the Beach Boys , and the later Nine Sinatra Songs . A rocker like Billy Joel jolts Ms. Tharp’s signature choreography to dizzying heights of urban angst. But those spiraling couples of hers, ghostly and beautiful, remind us, with regret, that couples scarcely dance romantically with each other on Broadway any more.

If Broadway has forgotten how to dance, it never knew how to rock. Rock is said to be the missing beat on Broadway. But Pete Townshend never got beyond his family-values stage version of Tommy , mainstream Elton John’s Aida is kitsch, Hair is long gone, and the spandex glories of dear old Abba rule. It’s great to hear Billy Joel’s raw power and lyricism (and soppiness) on the Great White Way, particularly with Michael Cavanaugh leading the best imported band on Broadway. (Tinny pit orchestras and rock scores have never made a match in heaven). But this is more Twyla Tharp’s show than Billy Joel’s.

She has “dramatized” 24 of his songs, turning them into some kind of story-the usual story!-about coming of age in the Vietnam era. There are no surprises here, alas. We know the plot backwards: Three friends go to war in Vietnam; two return; girlfriends grieve; vets return to a lonely existence of drugs and self-loathing; love heals all wounds. The End.

And should there be a happy end to an authentic Vietnam story? Of course not. Ms. Tharp’s slender, sentimental storyline cobbling the songs together drifts at times into Broadway-musical cliché. There are times when the plot doesn’t fit the lyrics (best not to ask how blue-collar Brenda becomes an uptown girl). There are melodramatic sequences, like the stagey, underpopulated “battle scene” that’s mimed to Billy Joel’s tremendous anthem of rage, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” when the simplistic, clichéd stage picture (along with flashing lights and bad acting) doesn’t live up to the song’s furious lyric: “J.F.K. blown away, what else do I have to say / We didn’t start the fire.”

Those lapses come in Act I, and the second act is by far the stronger. Until the pat apotheosis, Ms. Tharp shrouds the action in grief and yearning. The shaky story line becomes less important, the staging less illustrative. She’s after the force of elemental emotion, and she finds it. The stunning resonance sustained by the troupe from “Goodnight Saigon” (“We left as inmates / From an asylum / And we were as sharp / As sharp as knives”) to the climactic “Only the Good Die Young” is hypnotic and superb. The mature, melting pas de deux to “Shameless” is simply wonderful and free.

Whatever its flaws, we exit Movin’ Out on a high. In her unique hybrid of ballet and Broadway, of high and low art, pure dance and rock ‘n’ roll, Twyla Tharp at her best is fancy-free and without equal.