Love is dark and overwhelming in Twyla Tharp's Nightspot, less emotional force than sheer force of nature. And while there's definitely some nightclub moments in the famed choreographer's new ballet, which Miami City Ballet premiered Friday night at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, it's as much about the dark place inside as any place to hit the dance floor and the opposite sex.
Like Elvis Costello's richly atmospheric score, Nightspot swells and swirls with emotion, taking audience and dancers along for a heart-snapping ride.
Tharp said that Nightspot contained her imaginary vision of Miami, and she's captured some of this city's feverish velocity and sense of anything-can-happen wildness, with blessedly few Latin clichés. And this being Tharp, the choreography is inseparable from the dancers, magnifying their personalities and their gifts. When the magnificent Cuban dancer Isanusi Garcia-Rodriguez throws down like a body-snaking, hip-hop battling, machete wielding Santeria street god, or Jennifer Kronenberg twists round Carlos Miguel Guerra like an endlessly seductive serpent, it's a moment you can only imagine in Miami and from these dancers.
There's a Broadway musical feeling to the dramatic opening, a Latin dancing crowd with three couples standing out: yearning and conflicted Guerra and Callie Manning; malevolently, carelessly seductive Garcia-Rodriguez and Kronenberg; and optimistic, impulsive Katia Carranza and Jeremy Cox. Guerra and Manning quarrel, which sends Guerra off after other women, Carranza and Cox try to bring them back together, there's lots of flirting and hand slapping. Isaac Mizrahi's crimson and purple costumes — their color intensified by John Hall's lighting — layer hip street and clubwear with dancer gear: Spanish lace and crinoline skirts, sexy bustiers and shrugs, hoodies and T-shirts.
Although the nine-piece band stretches across the back of the stage, you can barely see it, and it plays no more part in the onstage action than the 35-piece orchestra in the pit. Costello's splendid score has its own sense of motion, the music moving between band and orchestra, rich with color and melody and a powerful, continuous pulse. There are snatches of salsa and tango, themes for the lead couples, an impressively orchestrated musical drama of its own.
But Tharp doesn't so much tell a story as let these couples' personalities and emotions take them for a ride. As Manning and Guerra keep quarreling, Guerra is seduced by the sinuous Kronenberg, who's carried by a group of men above a rippling train of red fabric, diving and floating above it like a fish over a river of blood, wrapping round Guerra until Garcia-Rodriguez, her manipulative pimp/jealous lover, battles him down — with Kronenberg kicking him to make sure he stays there. (The women are as fiercely aggressive as the men here — Manning slaps and punches Guerra in a kind of mutual Apache dance).
The dancers have an edge and energy they've never had before — Cox almost turns over in sky-high kicks, a bolt of energy. If Manning hauls Guerra back to his feet and into her arms, and everyone reconciles on the dancefloor at the end, you can still feel chaos round the corner, because Garcia-Rodriguez is whipping up madness with his flipping arms, like he can't wait for whatever craziness might happen next.