Tharp All Over

July 24, 2007

The United States map hanging in Ginger Montel’s office has color-coded pushpins scattered across the country. Each one indicates where a dance company has a Twyla Tharp piece in its active repertoire, with the different colors representing the number of works. Lately she has been adding them to the map at a rapid pace.


Tharp’s brilliant, challenging works are introducing new audiences to her bracing originality and distinctive blend of complexity and kinetic appeal. This month, Miami City Ballet performs In the Upper Room (1986), its fourth Tharp work in the past three years. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater recently took on its first Tharp work, The Golden Section from The Catherine Wheel (1981), and will perform the work on tour across the country. The list of troupes featuring Tharp this season includes Pacific Northwest Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Louisville Ballet, and The Washington Ballet. And in a bold move, the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet will don sneakers and red pointe shoes next month for its first Tharp work, In the Upper Room.


Companies other than Tharp’s own have been performing her dances since the 1970s, when she established a historic relationship with the Joffrey Ballet (Deuce Coupe, her first piece for Robert Joffrey, initially blended her own dancers with his onstage). Her own company, in various incarnations, was the laboratory for her forward-looking, intensely creative energies. But it did occasionally bring back earlier works, such as The Golden Section, Deuce Coupe (1973), and The Fugue (1970)—with men instead of the original all-female trio.


During the 1990s, when Tharp was choreographing on a far-flung freelance basis for The Royal Ballet, Boston Ballet, Australian Ballet and others, she created five works for American Ballet Theatre. That decade also saw a fruitful association with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago that made this troupe a beehive of Tharp activity.


Montel’s arrival as associate director of Twyla Tharp Productions in 2003 launched a new, fertile phase in the licensing of her dances. “Twyla had started to think about the best way to preserve her work, and to have it done as close to the original as possible,” Montel explained in her midtown Manhattan office. A veteran of the theater world, she met Tharp when she was working on her Broadway hit, Movin’ Out.


Montel—working closely with Tharp’s son Jesse Huot, who runs Tharp’s business operations—restructured the licensing fees and terms so that the company does not have to negotiate with any of the other collaborators. “That has been something that every company I’ve worked with has been thrilled about,” said Montel. She works with a small group of Tharp stalwarts who stage the works—dancers from her company or ABT, where she served briefly as artistic associate and which has more Tharp works than any other ballet troupe. These stagers, including Shelley Washington, Keith Roberts, and Elaine Kudo, rely on their own experience of being part of Tharp’s creative process and performing her dances. They also have at their disposal a supply of teaching videos compiled from the hundreds of hours of footage Tharp kept of rehearsals and performances.


During a recent rehearsal of Upper Room at ABT, Roberts was leading a contingent of men through the “stomper” section. His gutsy attack and the ease with which he flowed through the complex mix of martial arts moves and deep lunges, along with développés, and sautés, showed them exactly what they were aiming for. Their sneakers squeaking across the floor, they were clearly still counting carefully and assimilating the fast, feisty moves into their bodies.


Roberts will also stage Upper Room at the Bolshoi. Alexei Ratmansky, the new artistic director, asked for Upper Room as the Bolshoi’s first adventure in Tharpland. Roberts, who also staged Upper Room for Birmingham Royal Ballet, knows it won’t be easy. “To present such contemporary work to a company that is so definitely classical is a little daunting,” he said. Plus, the Philip Glass score will be performed live for the first time.


Since he is still performing on tour with Movin’ Out, Roberts is staging the Bolshoi production in three trips. He spent a week casting and says he needs between 100 and 125 hours to stage the ballet. He acknowledges that Upper Room, which requires high doses of virtuosity, stamina, and momentum, is perhaps not the most logical choice for an initial foray into Tharp. “Yes, there are easier ways to begin” he admitted. “But if you’re going to bring in a ballet from the West, you might as well make it spectacular. So why not go with a big bang right off the bat?”


At a late-summer rehearsal of The Golden Section at the Ailey studios, Shelley Washington, one of the busiest Tharp stagers, asked the dancers to simply walk through the dance. But they could not contain their energy, plunging into daring leaps and catches. In discussing the boxing moves in the male quartet, she said she wanted a more forceful, weighted attack. In order to get that quality, she asked the dancers to think of army trainees having to run through tires.


Washington joined Tharp’s company in 1975, went with her to ABT, and worked as her assistant after she stopped performing. She was by the choreographer’s side during the creative process on many projects. While setting Nine Sinatra Songs, she supplements her own first-hand knowledge with a video made expressly for teaching. “People talk their parts through,” she noted about the video, “and you can see lifts from back, front and side.”


Certain Tharp works—The Golden Section, Nine Sinatra Songs, Upper Room—are in particular demand. But after Pacific Northwest Ballet performed Sinatra last year, artistic director Peter Boal chose an unusual follow-up: Waterbaby Bagatelles, a little-seen but substantial ballet that Tharp made in 1994 for Boston Ballet. “I love the mix of composers and the high-energy choreography,” Boal said about this ballet, which has music by Astor Piazzolla, John Lurie, John Adams, and others.


“It’s a huge deal; it has 27 dancers,” noted Washington shortly before carrying out the Seattle assignment. “I was there in the studio for every minute when she made it, and I knew every count. But when I looked at it [on video] again, it was overwhelming.” She re-immersed herself in it with daily sessions. “Every day I’ll sit with the video for four or five hours, re-learning the sections and remembering how we counted.”


Elaine Kudo, who excelled in Tharp’s works during her years as an ABT soloist, now crisscrosses the country at a dizzying pace with her schedule of Tharp assignments. She was back at ABT studios to stage the 1984 Sinatra Suite (a short version of Nine Sinatra Songs), which she originally performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov. “Everybody thinks Tharp is getting down, loose, that there’s not a lot of technique involved,” said Kudo. “But she has a very specific way she wants you to carry your body and use your feet.” Kudo staged the delicate Sweet Fields (1996) for Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet. And she recently set Baker’s Dozen (1979) for American Repertory Ballet. “The challenge was to make the dancers really get down into their legs and roll through their feet,” said Kudo. “Having been a ballet dancer myself, I know what the tendencies are that are going to make it revert to looking like ballet.”


Some smaller companies are licensing lesser-known works—and making creative choices. Company C Contemporary Ballet, based in San Francisco, has performed the jazzy, humorous Eight Jelly Rolls (1971) and the playful Country Dances (1976). Both were staged by the sublime Tharp interpreter Christine Uchida, a new recruit to the ranks of Tharp coaches.


These distinguished Tharpians strive to transmit both the letter and the spirit of her choreography. “Twyla wants things very precise, very articulated; she wants it executed perfectly.” Roberts observed. “Then she wants you to go beyond that, and make it individual—adding our hearts and our creativity to what the movement is.” He continued, “After they’re drilled on the steps and counts, I say, ‘Dance it with all the freedom you’ve ever wanted to dance with. Dance it for the reason you started dancing.’ Suddenly, you get to see these dancers blossom onstage, and explode. You see the real essence of who they are. You get to see them fly.”


Susan Reiter reviews for and contributes articles on the performing arts to a variety of publications.

Tharp on Campus

College dance departments are swimming in the current wave of Tharp mountings. As an educational tool, Tharp’s choreography is bound to expand students’ movement vocabulary, challenge them with coordination puzzles, and break their assumptions about phrasing. Sarah Lawrence College, where the great Tharp dancer Sara Rudner directs the dance program, is learning The Fugue. So is Marymount Manhattan College, where two Tharp alumni, Katie Langan and Anthony Ferro, are on faculty. The exquisite As Time Goes By will be done by University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Hunter College students in NYC are learning Country Dances from Stacy Caddell, and Butler University in Indianapolis is getting Torelli—the only Tharp dance that can be self-taught through the use of a teaching video. Juilliard is doing Deuce Coupe in March, and in April, Katie Glasner, the resident Tharpian at Barnard, is staging Eight Jelly Rolls. Some of these dance departments will be involved in the one-night five-college Tharp marathon on May 12 at The Joyce. See