Dancing in Twyla’s World

Twyla Tharp believes you can have it all—pop and classical art, with humor and discipline but not snobbery
By Katherine Luce

When Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe premiered at the Joffrey Ballet in 1973, it exhilarated audiences. A ballet company was dancing, as hard as it had ever danced, to the familiar pop sounds of the Beach Boys. Graffiti artists tagged a rolling backdrop on stage. Tharp’s company of modern dancers mixed with the Joffrey dancers, blending ballet and modern steps, everyday motions, and instantly recognizable bits of party dances. The piece put Tharp on the map as a major American choreographer, demolishing people’s preconceptions about the divide between classical and modern dance along the way.

Tharp went on to choreograph several films, including the movie version of Hair, and create Broadway shows using the music of Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. She has made dances to the tunes of Frank Sinatra, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jelly Roll Morton. An early and enthusiastic explorer of television’s possibilities for dance, she has described herself as a “very basic American.” She objects to elitism. Humor—much of it based on the perpetually amusing contrast between classical ballet and other ways of moving—permeates her work.

This fall, the Joffrey is bringing Deuce Coupe, complete with the original graffiti-covered backdrop, to Cal Performances as part of a tribute to Tharp engineered by director Robert Cole. The program will also include American Ballet Theater, where Tharp’s association dates from 1975 (she was resident choreographer from 1988 to 1991), and the Miami City Ballet. All three companies will perform vintage Tharp.

Her work is a relatively recent arrival at Miami City Ballet, which Edward Villella founded in 1985 after his retirement from the New York City Ballet. The two choreographers come from different, almost incompatible worlds. Villella joined the New York City Ballet in 1957, becoming that rarity, a great, purely American male ballet dancer (he’s an Italian-American from Queens). He spent his entire dancing career under George Balanchine’s autocratic leadership, earning a reputation for asking unwelcome questions. Tharp is a different creature. She started choreographing in the extremely experimental mid-’60s, and even started a dance commune in upstate New York. She only lasted one season as a dancer with the Paul Taylor company; since then, she has given the orders herself. Villella describes both himself and Tharp as “direct”—meaning a clarity of focus and an inability to compromise that has led some to describe both as “difficult.”

Traditionally, Miami City Ballet has performed classical masterworks. The challenge for the company, with its high standards, is to move into the future without sacrificing the quality of the ballets they perform. Villella is also concerned, as everyone in his position must be, about the graying of his audience and the influence of popular culture. He must walk the tightrope of attracting new audiences without alienating more traditionally oriented dance lovers. This is where Tharp fits in. Tharp, he says, is forward-looking, reflecting the 21st century “in her own grand manner and style.” Both contemporary and traditional, she “can communicate with younger audiences and be deeply respected by the mature audience.”

The company introduced her to its audiences in 2004 with Nine Sinatra Songs, and in 2008 will premiere a new work to a commissioned score by Elvis Costello. Over time, Tharp and the company have developed what Villella calls “a wonderful relationship.” Notwithstanding her embrace of pop music, he credits Tharp with a “classical sensibility,” and finds a creative tension between looseness and detail in her work. There’s “a sense of cacophony, until you realize how beautifully everything is tied together,” he says. Maybe, in Tharp’s world, you can have it all: a disciplined, uncompromising high art without snobbery.

Nine Sinatra Songs, for instance, is an easily accessible, meticulously choreographed portrait of different aspects of love through a series of duets. Sinatra Suite, which American Ballet Theater will perform as part of the tribute at Cal Performances, is a variant of this work: five songs for a single couple. While companies know that Sinatra will appeal to their audiences, Tharp’s version of nostalgia is never simplistic. Even in her most elegant, romantic mode, a pugnacious, everyday quality adds a tartness to the sugar.

But the smooth, rugged cosmopolitanism of Nine Sinatra Songs doesn’t come easily. Tharp’s physical language is extremely individual and technically challenging. The dancers must be very loose, rolling hips and shaking fingers, while performing difficult, tightly choreographed steps with precision. In the Upper Room, which Miami City Ballet will perform for the Tharp tribute, Villella describes as “complex and debilitating, one of the most complex works I’ve ever seen.” They have been performing it since January now, but after the first run-through of the full piece the dancers lay on the floor gasping. Later, they had T-shirts printed with “I survived the Upper Room.” But he also says that “the dancers loved it, yes indeed.” Although Tharp notoriously demands all that dancers can give, many dancers stay with her for years. In fact, most of the Tharp pieces Miami City Ballet performs were set for them by Elaine Kudo, who appeared in the Dance in America: Baryshnikov by Tharp video in 1984 as an American Ballet Theater dancer, and then went on to join Tharp’s company.

The programs the three ballet companies will perform in the Cal Performances tribute emphasize how Tharp’s versatility is linked to her fierce individualism. Each company is, in its own way, stating its intentions. The Joffrey, with its pop sympathies, matches Deuce Coupe with Laura Dean’s Sometimes It Snows in April and Robert Joffrey’s Pas des Déesses. The Dean piece was part of their hugely promoted 1993 Billboards evening of dances set to music by the artist once again known as Prince; it was even more of a high-profile crossover event than Deuce Coupe. Miami City Ballet emphasizes Tharp’s classicism by pairing their two Tharp works with George Balanchine’s pristine masterpiece Agon, a work that Tharp has publicly admired. And, finally, American Ballet Theater takes a running leap at the future by matching Tharp’s Sinatra Suites and Baker’s Dozen with two brand-new works, Jorma Elo’s collaboration with Philip Glass and Chuck Close to Glass’s A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close, and a new work by the New York City Ballet’s Benjamin Millepied to a commissioned score by Nico Muhly.

From the September October 2007 Green Tech issue of California.
Image source: Joe McNally
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