Twyla Tharp's Rhythm Nation

The genius of choreographer Twyla Tharp's brilliant three-decade career has largely resided in her ability to combine athletic bravado with balletic emotion, instilling the dance vernacular with virtuosity by wedding everyday movement to the romance of the stage. Musically, Tharp has been all over the map. Mining both the ubiquitous and the obscure, consecrating Top 40 tunes and decoding the avant-garde, she has set her works to the music of Frank Sinatra, Jelly Roll Morton, David Byrne, Thelonious Monk, Philip Glass, Shaker hymns, and the Beach Boys.

Lately the modern-dance trendsetter has turned to a topical source close to the hearts -- and beaches -- of Miami: Cuba. "Yemaya," a work in progress named after the Afro-Cuban goddess of the sea, is choreographed to music that includes tracks from Buena Vista Social Club -- the Grammy-winning Cuban all-star album that that has become a must-have for informed Anglos -- as well as to ceremonial rhythms from Santeria recordings. The 56-year-old New York City-based Tharp admits that she's a newcomer to Cuban music: Buena Vista Social Club was a gift from a neighbor who works in the music industry, and she ran across a Smithsonian recording of Santeria ritual drumming at her local Tower Records. Then she got to thinking.

"Rhythms that we typically think of as Latin dance rhythms actually have roots in religion," Tharp notes. "I have also found that music rooted in religion makes extremely good dance music."

Well, gee, Twyla, generations of rumberos think so too. Still, prospects for her take on the Cuban pulse are promising. "Yemaya," one of a half-dozen dances her company will present at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts this weekend in Tharp!, loosely tells the story of a man's adventures with a woman who has been possessed by the goddess. Rather than basing her movements on Afro-Cuban ceremonial dance, Tharp was influenced by figures in African and Latin American sculpture. The rhythm of ocean waves is also evident, and the piece includes moments that recall various popular social dances. Isabel and Ruben Toledo, New York City-based Cuban designers, created costumes for the work.

In a move akin to bringing a newfangled version of the Bible to the Vatican, Tharp will debut "Yemaya" in Miami with a troupe of young dancers she founded in 1996. Tharp, who joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1963, formed her first company in 1965, and disbanded it in the late Eighties, also worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the American Ballet Theater in New York.

Critics up north have been raving about Tharp! In addition to the company's foray into cubania, they will present five other programs over two evenings. On Friday, in addition to "Yemaya," expect to see "Heroes," with a David Bowie/Brian Eno score reworked by Philip Glass, and "Baker's Dozen," a jazz paean set to the music of Willie "the Lion" Smith. Saturday: "Sweet Fields," which features early American choral music and costumes designed by Norma Kamali; "Roy's Joys," a jazzy display with music by trumpeter Roy Eldridge; and a revival of 1970's acclaimed "The Fugue," which has no musical accompaniment. In the last piece, sounds are created by the dancers' feet moving across a miked floor and their hands slapping their thighs.

-- Judy Cantor

Tharp! will be performed Friday, April 3, and Saturday, April 4, at 8:00 p.m. at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 237-3010. Tickets range from $25 to $40.


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