Choreographer Twyla Tharp and American Ballet Theatre have had a mutually advantageous relationship for 20 years now, a good long run in a fickle world.
The once-iconoclastic Tharp alighted at ABT as an artistic associate in the late 1980s. She then ditched her fabulous modern dance company and has been on a roller coaster career ever since, zinging from Broadway musicals to movies, back to modern dance and then again to ballet.
For its part, ABT has reaped 16 world premieres from the award-winning Tharp, who is an audience favorite.
Tharp's ballet career has been fitful, however, and the latest piece, "Rabbit and Rogue," is not such a prize. Seen Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (which co-commissioned it), it is an agitated amalgamation of all manner of dance styles, topped with Tharp's own distinct "alphabet," from arabesque to yoga.
Underneath the excessive mélange, though, lives a core idea that's not half bad, about balance and power as embodied by the two male leads, Ethan Stiefel and Herman Cornejo (on Wednesday). If you could pare away "Rabbit and Rogue's" indulgences, you would find a much smaller ballet.
One difficulty, perhaps, was Tharp's pairing with first-time ballet composer Danny Elfman (the rock-TV-film composer, who was in Wednesday night's audience). He supplied a composition so eclectic that it fueled Tharp's taste for smorgasbord.
Happily, conductor Ormsby Wilkins ably led the Pacific Symphony musicians through all its complexities: with minimalist repetition, percussive thunder and a lovely thematic melody that was worth expansion.
Stiefel, the Rogue, started off, twitching and skipping, isolated in an overhead spot (lighting by Brad Fields). Cornejo, the Rabbit, jogged onstage next for a whirling introduction. When the pair popped up for playful combat, the ballet jelled, and Tharp was able to stretch the creative capacities, and also our expectations, of these two terrific artists.
In the first part, the ensemble held hands and threaded on and off like a lost folk dance troupe. Everyone's energy was high, and the threads of a developing relationship led us through Tharp's disorderly, mishmash phrases.
In succeeding sections, however, the dance ideas thinned considerably. It wasn't that the story was dropped -- there really wasn't one to begin with -- but connections between steps and music, between one dancer and another, frayed as "Rabbit and Rogue" dragged on.
To match the ragtime music, there was a Rag Couple, a sexy Gillian Murphy and too serious David Hallberg, who engaged in sleek ballroom steps and then tit-for-tat bickering. Paloma Herrera and Gennadi Saveliev, the Gamelan Couple, were eager but underused in a section that aimed for more traditional classicism, but which lacked consistency.
At least the ballet was a fashion hit, thanks to Norma Kamali's chic black, white and silver costumes.
In hindsight, the program's opening ballet, "Etudes" by choreographer Harald Lander, shared some surprising similarities to "Rabbit and Rogue." Both works were stitched together from separate scenes rather than from cohesive whole cloth. Too, at base, the choreographers were wowing audiences with the dancers' physical prowess, emotive artistry be damned.
Created in 1948 for the Royal Danish Ballet to music by Knudaag Riisager (Charles Barker conducted), "Etudes" takes the daily exercises that dancers practice from childhood and attempts to elevate them to performance worthiness. What most dancers come to consider rote drudgery has fascinated outsiders since Degas was painting backstage in Paris. Thus, "Etudes' " longevity.
The ballet progresses like a class, from barre work -- with lighting directed on the dancers' legs in disembodied unison -- to adagio in the center floor, concluding with bravura leaps and spins.
Lander comes closest to veering from this formula in a scene inspired by the great Romantic ballets, such as "La Sylphide." The sylph Wednesday was principal dancer Michele Wiles, who hit all the marks and tipped her head prettily but was less spontaneous and free onstage than one would like. When it came time for the whiz-bang finale, though, Wiles was the woman to call. She could freeze on toe and power her way through Lander's strength trials.
Her two partners each fared well enough through their Herculean tests. Tall and elegant, Cory Stearns unleashed crisp and unflaggingly articulated beats. Jared Matthews had the unenviable task of imitating a spinning top and even completed a set of fouetté turns, normally reserved for the ladies.
The corps de ballet did its job too, though more polish and stylistic subtlety would help immensely.
Let's face it, though: Neither of these ballets is about subtlety. And as all those TV dance shows have shown us, that is not a cultural priority these days.