If like us you're already mourning the end of American Ballet Theatre's marathon Met season, don't fear. The company just announced the lineup for its fall season, and there's a lot to look forward to.
Running October 16-27 at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, ABT's fall lineup includes world premieres by choreographers Twyla Tharp and Gemma Bond. While Tharp has been creating for ABT since 1976 (the company's Met season included a trio of her works), corps dancer Gemma Bond will be making her choreographic debut for ABT's main company. The season also shines a spotlight on principal Herman Cornejo, who will be celebrating his 20th anniversary with the company.
In the early 1960s, a group of dancers started questioning the existing rules of choreography. Influenced by John Cage, they created dances that were startling in their simplicity and risk-taking. Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Deborah Hay, Elaine Summers and Lucinda Childs were all part of this group. Most of them had studied or danced with Anna Halprin or Simone Forti. Visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay were part of this cauldron of experimentation as well as composer Philip Corner.
The Museum of Modern Art has mounted an expansive exhibit called "Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done." It gathers photos, artwork, scores, objects and films that bring the period alive. If you get there before January 16, you'll see the films of Brown's early work. Her piece Walking on the Wall was so disorienting that it was almost hallucinatory. (Actually, this film and most of the Brown pieces are from the 70s.) Playing with perception was a big part of the Judson and post-Judson eras.
The fall performance season continues at breakneck speed with everything from an international ballet company making its U.S. debut to a retrospective on one of New York City's most iconic dancemakers—not to mention more than a few intriguing new works. Here's what we've got pencilled in.
Waves of sheer dance inventiveness come rolling toward you. Dancers in sneakers, pointe shoes or ballet slippers mingle: it looks like a free-for-all but is carefully plotted out. Philip Glass' music lets the dancers ride his gorgeous momentum.
This is In the Upper Room, the celestial yet kinetically charged ballet made by Twyla Tharp in 1986. It hasn't been done by American Ballet Theatre since 2012 and now it's coming back with full force.
Just in time for its summer season at Lincoln Center, the dancers and management of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have settled their issues surrounding the performers' union contracts. Now that they've reached a new collective bargaining agreement, the dancers can sail into this weeklong season of nine ballets. (Well, maybe not sail, since this is some of the hardest repertory on earth.)
Conversations about body image in dance typically revolve around female dancers. For an obvious reason: It's usually women who are driven to dangerous means to reach the ideal "ballet body."
But they're not alone in the struggle. Former Twyla Tharp dancer Charlie Hodges recently told his own story during a TED Talk at California's ArtCenter College of Design.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Maybe it's just by chance, but it seems like the upcoming lineup in New York City is designed to remind us of the women giants of our field. What a great welcome to the new season!
• Twyla Tharp brings new and old work to the Joyce. She may be the most prolific living choreographer in any genre. Her movement is always bursting with inventiveness, and she challenges her mighty dancers with impossibly complex and non-stop motion.
I first got hooked on Broadway musicals as a preteen at Gypsy, with its tapping moppets, gyrating burlesque queens and Tulsa, the dancing heartthrob. I've been going ever since, but Dance Magazine has been at it even longer.
The 1926-27 Broadway season was just ending when DM began publication, and of its 200-plus shows, dozens were new musicals. One, a Ziegfeld revue called No Foolin', listed more than 80 performers. Such huge ensembles of dancers and singers were common, whether in revues, operettas or musical comedies.
And why not? The '20s were roaring, and Broadway was flush. But that wasn't the only difference between then and now. Dance in the theater was only tangentially related to a show's content. It was window dressing—however extravagant, it remained mere entertainment.
Those of us who love Twyla Tharp's early works were jazzed to hear that she will expand As Time Goes By (1973) for The Royal Ballet this fall.
ATGB, original cast with Richard Colton (left), Pamela Nearhoof (right), photo courtesy DM Archives
This was a beautiful, dreamy, swirly ballet that was her first totally classical piece. Her Deuce Coupe a few months earlier was a hit that mingled the Joffrey dancers with her own dancers, performed to songs by the Beach Boys. It integrated modern and ballet, streetwise and classical, and took New York City by storm. Naturally Robert Joffrey asked her to make a second ballet ASAP.
The no-nonsense choreographer opens up about her career, her dancers and why money gets in the way of female choreographers’ success.
Reed Tankersley and Ramona Kelley. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Twyla Tharp. Photo by Marc van Borstel.
Twyla Tharp may be celebrating her 50th anniversary this year, but she’s looking forward, not back. The groundbreaking choreographer who made her debut in 1965 with Tank Dive is responsible for the first crossover ballet—Deuce Coupe, which included both ballet and modern dance and was set to the Beach Boys—as well as classic works like In the Upper Room and Push Comes to Shove and films like Hair, White Nights and Amadeus. Her work on Broadway, most notably Movin’ Out, has extended not only her reach but the reach of dance. This fall, she kicks off a 10-week tour with two premieres—typically gutsy—and a powerhouse crew. Along with regulars John Selya, Rika Okamoto, Matthew Dibble and Ron Todorowski, the current group includes Nick Coppula and Eva Trapp, formerly of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre; Daniel Baker, formerly of Miami City Ballet; and Amy Ruggiero and Ramona Kelley, who were part of Come Fly Away. Reed Tankersley, who performed Baker’s Dozen as a Juilliard student, is, as Tharp puts it, “the baby.” Rounding the stage out will be two Amazonian queens: Savannah Lowery, on leave from New York City Ballet, and Kaitlyn Gilliland, a former NYCB dancer. As the impressive record shows, Tharp pulls the best out of her dancers and here, they run the gamut. “I’ve never held a bias against a dancer because they were short, tall, black or white,” Tharp says. “It’s only got to do with how they dance.”
Has the kind of dancer you’re drawn to changed over the years?
Gorgeous. Eclectically and brilliantly trained. Very intelligent. Extreme sense of humor. A willingness to work, but also an ability to work. They’re not quite the same thing. By now, I don’t have to put up with people who are trouble. You have to want to work with other people, and you have to appreciate what it is to be in an ensemble and to value the give and take of a great team. I need to see it from the audience and I need to feel it on the stage when I’m working with people. Otherwise, the singularity, the egocentric, the vanity—I don’t need it.
What do you mean by eclectic training?
Everything. We have an open position, we have a parallel position, we can be grounded, we can be high. You need to have it all. You also have to have a willingness to allow for movement to be funky or to be elegant, and that’s a state of mind. You require different kinds of grace. Another thing that’s important to understand is that as you mature, you can’t expect the legs to do it all. You have to be able to hold your own so that the legs and the feet are not being asked to do totally, absolutely everything.
Amy Ruggiero (center) and Daniel Baker (right) rehearsing The One Hundreds. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Kaitlyn Gilliland. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Is that part of why dancers should do weight training?
Absolutely. Everybody, both the men and the women. If the guys don’t, they’re going to have a weak lower back; they’re going to splay their back. If the girls don’t, they’re going to have a collapsed sternum, and they’re going to have old ballerina chicken neck early. Echhh. If you do weights, you learn to ground your back, you’re pushing, you’re pulling and this is open and elevated. Hello.
When your dancers have a star moment, what don’t you want to see?
Ego. Not interested and neither are they. Once in a while, it’ll come out because we’re all human. What that does is reduces their own presence. It gives them a minimized force field. When the ego is at play, it looks to draw a very small circle right around itself and everything else should keep out. A big performer doesn’t have to put up the barricades.
Over the years, a couple of your dancers have appeared on shows like “So You Think You Can Dance.” How do you feel about those programs?
The thing is this: I’m all for every one of these people having every experience that makes sense for them to have, because, ultimately, if they profit from it, I profit from it. They bring it back and then we have something to reference and guess what? Like with an actor, it is better to be working than not working. I am not arrogant or insecure about this. I’m all in favor of seeing people work in as many different realms as possible, because I have.
Tankersley, Ruggiero and Eva Trapp. Photo by Kyle Froman.
What’s been your greatest risk as a choreographer?
Oh please. I have no idea. Anything that’s exciting is a gamble. Anything that’s a challenge is a gamble. This tour is a scientific experiment in terms of doing something that is extremely demanding and doing it well. That’s not exactly a gamble, because I don’t gamble with other people’s lives. When I’m challenging myself it’s one thing; when you’re responsible for other people, it’s something else. I think that making the decision that the 50th would not be a revisitation of the master works and somehow pull out rep that represented a career that we all knew, that’s minimally crazy.
Trapp. Photo by Kyle Froman.
What are your thoughts about being a female choreographer, especially in the ballet world?
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that I never set out to be a very good female choreographer. I set out to be a very good choreographer, end of story. I never accept any awards that are the “Best Female” anything. In ballet, one of the big reasons that the men prevail is partially because of the overbearing attitude in ballet companies, which is heavily chauvinistic in terms of women and their place. We all know this. However, it is also because most women are not big jumpers and they can’t partner. And a lot of what’s involved in new choreography involves partnering, and they don’t know how to design from the other side. I taught myself how to do that. I can do both sides of partnering. I know how the grips work, I know how the leverage has to function. So part of it is not “Let’s just sit in the corner and cry ‘poor me’ ”—let’s figure out why and let’s go and get those chops. In the modern-dance world, it’s a different deal. The earlier practitioners, at least in this country, were women. Now that seems to have flipped, and it’s like, Hmmm? What happened here? Money.
There was no money in modern dance. It didn’t exist. Everybody was in there simply to do it. More and more grants started to happen and then it’s a field where it becomes competitive about earning an income. Whenever earning an income becomes an issue, men have an edge. Unless women have a driving need to support themselves, and, heaven help us, any children. Then they will compete, as I have done. Otherwise, they will stand back and expect—emotionally perhaps a bit and practically perhaps a bit—for some support, because they are, after all, women. Bullshit. I’m being straight. It’s the responsibility of the women. You can’t sit back and say we’ve been exploited and taken advantage of. It’s like, Get out there and fix it. If you want something, you have to do it yourself.
Is there an area of dance you prefer to choreograph in?
No! Give me anything. Anything, anytime.
Gia Kourlas writes about dance for The New York Times.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
While studying at the Royal Ballet School, Matthew Dibble dreamed of working with the world’s great choreographers. But by the time he joined The Royal, the company was in transition. “Ashton was gone. Kenneth was dead,” he says. “I wanted to dance under working choreographers. It never interested me to do the Giselles.”
After five years in the corps, Dibble and five of his colleagues left to start their own troupe, K Ballet, in Japan. But life abroad was trying, and after three years, he moved home.
Soon after, he got a call from Twyla Tharp, whom he’d worked with on Mr. Worldly Wise and Push Comes to Shove at The Royal. She invited him to audition for one of her projects, then later asked him to join her company in New York. Though Dibble connected with Tharp’s collaborative style—“Something clicked when we met,” he says—he was hesitant to pick up his life again. Her response, he recalls, was something along the lines of: “Are you joking? You’re being stupid. Get over here and dance.”
So he did. And since that engagement in 2001, Dibble has been a staple among Tharp’s leading dancers, on the Movin’ Out tour, in Come Fly Away and now as a member of the latest iteration of her company. What’s most attracted him to her work, beyond the athleticism and larger-than-life personalities she demands of her dancers, is her intuitive sense of the chemistry that makes for a great show. An exacting but sensitive leader, she brings together an energetically balanced but stylistically diverse group of talents. “She’s direct, there’s no messing about,” says Dibble. “And she doesn’t ask anything of her dancers she wouldn’t do herself.”
Could Dibble have ever predicted his path, from ballet to Broadway and beyond? “Ballet helped me do what I’ve been able to do,” he says. “But I never got into dance to be safe. With Twyla, the studio is an open working space.” —Kristin Schwab
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Her first encounter with Twyla Tharp is something Rika Okamoto remembers well. It was 1993, and Tharp was selecting dancers for a work she was choreographing on the Martha Graham Company. Okamoto had just joined the previous year and wasn’t even supposed to be in the audition, which was reserved for senior dancers. (Longtime Graham dancer and master teacher Yuriko Kikuchi “pushed me into the studio and shut the door,” says Okamoto.) “When I lived in Japan, I went to see White Nights in the theater twice,” she says, referring to the 1985 movie Tharp choreographed starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. “I was the youngest person in the company. I was sure I wasn’t going to be in the piece.” Okamoto ended up being cast as Persephone in Tharp’s Demeter and Persephone.
Okamoto danced with Graham until 1999. Burnt out, she left the company, and considered leaving dance entirely after dabbling in acting and starting a family. Then Tharp’s people called about a workshop for a little budding idea called Movin’ Out. Okamoto went on to perform during the entirety of the show’s Broadway run (2002–2005). “I might not have known it then, but I realize now that I wanted to be a muse, be original,” she says of the transition. “When I started working with Twyla, I felt I could be who I was. I didn’t have to copy anyone.”
Since then, Okamoto has been a constant Tharp collaborator. She originated the role of Slim in Come Fly Away, helps Tharp develop movement for outside commissions and works as her assistant, archivist and education leader. “Performing or not performing, it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “Twyla challenges you to the maximum. Sometimes the challenge is beyond you. I still go home and cry sometimes, and I’m 46!”
This tour, says Okamoto, may or may not mark her last go at dancing. But that doesn’t mean she necessarily considers herself a veteran of all things Tharp. “Everybody else in the company is a ballet dancer but me, which I used to be so insecure about. But you discover yourself through challenge, whatever that is. Twyla always asks me at the end of the day, ‘Rika, what did you learn?’ That makes me want to go back for more. Once you taste that sense of ‘I can do this,’ you get addicted.” —KS
Twyla Tharp's summer workshop offers dancers a rare opportunity.
Longtime Tharp dancer and workshop instructor Rika Okamoto demonstrates a movement. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Reed Tankersley (left) and other workshop dancers. Photo by Kyle Froman.
It’s the third week of the Twyla Tharp Summer Workshop at Barnard College in New York City, and 30 students are in a repertoire class working on Tharp’s iconic piece, The One Hundreds. They’ve already learned phrases 1 through 25, and teacher and longtime Tharp dancer Rika Okamoto is beginning to teach section 26. She starts by demonstrating the legs—a series of rocking motions, popped arches and relevés. The students—who include high school and college dancers, as well as professionals—pick it up quickly. They also easily grasp the head’s movements, and then the eyes, when taught individually. But when Okamoto asks the dancers to put all the elements together, things fall apart. They clearly struggle, laughing nervously as they try to coordinate the conflicting motions. “This one’s almost impossible,” Okamoto says to the class. “I know maybe one person who’s ever been able to do it correctly.”
Participants in a class. Photo by Kyle Froman.
It’s clear that the perfect candidates for this workshop are those who are interested in truly being challenged. “The movement is difficult, but I think it’s one of the reasons that people are in the room,” says Tharp. “They want to be challenged physically and mentally. It’s important to me when I audition dancers that they can think quickly and that they’re not intimidated by new information. That’s one of the things we really focus on giving these students.”
Indeed, interesting movement is only half of what makes Tharp’s choreography so special. It’s also the intricate, often mathematical, patterns—plus, the opportunity for dancers to make their own choreographic choices. “Twyla told us that dancers have to be wildly independent,” says workshop attendee Austin Sora, a recent graduate of Marymount Manhattan College and apprentice with Buglisi Dance Theatre. “It’s important to be a thinking dancer and not just expect an authority figure to tell you what to do. I’ll take that lesson with me.” This autonomy is clear later in the day when the dancers work on Tharp’s The Fugue; dancers are told to decide in the moment when they will incorporate different bits of choreography, and are expected to count at their own pace, instead of listening to music.
Austin Sora works through a phrase. Photo by Kyle Froman.
The workshop will be given again this summer for two weeks in New York City. Each day starts with a technique class, with every phrase specially designed by Tharp to introduce students to her style. “My approach to teaching is a one-room school house; there’s something for everyone,” says Tharp, who calls the first technique class of the day Treefrog. It includes a strength-training warm-up, a series of center combinations designed to work through every muscle in the feet, legs and abdominals, and complex, high-energy across-the-floor combinations that look like they could have easily been taken straight from Tharp’s choreography. Each element is designed to keep dancers centered, on their leg and working their feet into the floor—important tools that can easily be translated into any style students focus on in the future. “Treefrog is about the paradox of being very grounded yet very high on the leg,” Tharp says. “It’s intended to make the dancer capable of moving in any direction very quickly, like a boxer.”
After morning technique class, the students have an hour and a half of Tharp repertoire. After lunch, they have another 45-minute technique class to warm up, followed by two and a half more hours of repertoire. The dancers learn excerpts from a selection of Tharp’s works, which are performed at an in-studio showcase. Like the technique classes, the repertoire is chosen specifically for its range, both in technical difficulty and style. The Fugue tests dancers’ memory, The One Hundreds works on counterpoint, Sweet Fields is classically based, Surfer At The River Styx is grounded in modern technique and Ocean’s Motion has a rock-and-roll edge.
As varied as Tharp’s choreography is, so are the dancers who are attracted to her program. “We have some classically trained dancers in the workshop, some who are more focused on modern dance and some with very little training, who are here to move and to think,” Tharp says. “I’m interested in everybody.”
While most dancers in attendance have experienced either Tharp choreography or technique in some context (Sora, for example, had taken Treefrog class at Marymount), they are generally not fluent in it. “A lot of these dancers have seen Twyla’s ballets,” Okamoto says. “But they’ve never seen what goes behind them.” So the program starts with the basic concepts of her movement, but progresses quickly.
Participants in a class. Photo by Kyle Froman.
“Your brain almost explodes by the end of each day,” says attendee and recent Juilliard graduate Reed Tankersley. “When we’re taught information, we’re expected to retain it the whole time, which has kept me on my toes.”
While Okamoto and 14-year Tharp dancer Alexander Brady generally lead classes and repertoire sessions, during the 2014 workshop, Tharp was often in the building, drifting in and out of the studio and stepping in to give the occasional correction or note. And from time to time, she taught the entire afternoon technique class—a rare occurrence for Tharp, who seldom even accompanies Okamoto or Brady when they set works on professional companies.
The prevalence of Tharp’s choreography makes knowing her style a valuable weapon for any aspiring professional. Indeed, there are few genres in which dancers won’t encounter Tharp’s work. And now, as The Joyce Theater’s current artist in residence, she continues to create work, and the Tharp ballet masters and dancers offer daily open company class at the Dance Art New York Studios. “She does concert dance, she does Broadway, she does ballet,” says Tankersley, who started dancing for Tharp after the workshop. “What I’ve learned here will be useful no matter where my career takes me.”
Rachel Zar is a freelance writer in Chicago.