Their Way

February 23, 2010

Inspired and inspiring, the leading ladies in Tharp’s
Come Fly Away talk about the show’s creative process.

They range from demure to voracious, genteel to fierce. They exude mystery, seduction, hauteur, aggression, depending on the occasion—and the song. They are the women of Come Fly Away, Twyla Tharp’s latest production to arrive on Broadway. As they and their partners sweep through a wide range of Frank Sinatra songs, they evoke an array of romantic relationships, in all their moods and possibilities: infatuation, discovery, manipulation, betrayal—and fulfillment.

This dynamic quartet—Holley Farmer, Laura Mead, Rika Okamoto and Karine Plantadit—took diverse paths on their way to Tharp’s show. Their backgrounds could not be more different, but each has found in Tharp a choreographer whose work nourishes them, expanding their capacities and horizons.

Tharp has cultivated brave, beautiful, adventurous female dancers right from the start, back in the days when she described her young troupe as “a bunch of broads doing God’s work.” The seismic shock of Tharp, Sara Rudner, and Rose Marie Wright performing The Fugue—Tharp’s fierce, uncompromising 1970 piece that remains challenging and farsighted today—lay partly in the women’s power, strength, and forthright presentation. There was nothing “ladylike” about these three stomping in boots in complex patterns.

While working on the current project, Tharp says, “I began to see bits and pieces—a little DNA, we might say—of earlier dancers, and earlier dances. I thought, This could be interesting—to reinvestigate, re-evaluate some of these characters.” She saw in Plantadit aspects of the Sara Rudner “character” in Nine Sinatra Songs. “She’s very independent, she has a lot of vivacity to her—and she has Sara’s fluidity.” Tharp also drew on the dancers’ distinctive presences. She found Mead “the perfect ingénue—and there’s a warmth that comes off her. Rika has flirtatiousness about her, plus she’s a really good actress. Holley’s imagination—her work in developing the character—is very impressive. She’s been heaven.” While Tharp has developed amazing male dancers throughout her career (two examples—Keith Roberts and John Selya—have lead roles in Come Fly Away), she continued to explore invigorating female roles in such works as Uncle Edgar Dyed His Hair Red and In The Upper Room.

When Nine Sinatra Songs appeared in 1982, her women exuded glamour and romance as well as strength, embodying the style of an earlier era with contemporary flair. She developed “partnering in which the woman did her share of the work and it sometimes was she, not the man, who knew what came next”—as she wrote in her autobiography.

Come Fly Away
, a far more panoramic investigation of these vintage songs, was first presented last September at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta (as Come Fly With Me). Following the romantic developments among four couples in an art deco nightclub, it provided a most satisfying, often heart-stopping synthesis of dance and theater. The action is more fluid and timeless than in her long-running 2002 Broadway success, Movin’ Out. But there is drama aplenty, thanks to the elegantly nuanced and thrilling performances.

It was the arrival of three women at Tharp’s studio in early 2007 that eventually—inadvertently—launched Come Fly Away. Plantadit and Okamoto (both original cast members of Movin’ Out) and Lisa Gajda, who performed in that show and also in Tharp’s 2006 Bob Dylan show, took the bold step of coming over and asking to dance.

“I missed the challenge. I knew the only person I wanted to dance for was Twyla,” says Okamoto. “Whenever I dance even a little phrase of her movement, I learn a lot. She’s always testing you.” Inviting the trio in for tea, Tharp explained that she had no upcoming work for which she could pay them. Okamoto recalls, “I said, ‘If I can dance for you—I don’t need anything.’ ”

Tharp and the three women began a month of open-ended, exhilarating exploration in her studio. “I adore working with this woman. I think that her genius and her intelligence make me a better artist,” says Plantadit, a memorable, fiery Ailey dancer during the 1990s. “Both Rika and I had nothing to lose. We agreed to enter a studio with the understanding that this could lead nowhere. It was pure—the most beautiful offering that one can do. No limitation, no boundaries.”

Eventually, Tharp brought in a few men—subject to the women’s approval—and some Sinatra was heard amid the Mozart and Beethoven playing in the studio. And it grew from there. “We kept coming back for a year and a half, and she would add another boy, another girl,” recalls Okamoto. Her Tharp connection dates back to 1993, when she was a new member of Martha Graham’s company, and Tharp arrived as the first choreographer to work with the troupe after Graham’s death. She created Demeter and Persephone, casting Okamoto as Persephone.

Tharp knew Mead from a 2007–08 touring company of Movin’ Out, which Tharp had rehearsed intensively before they hit the road. She was seeking a partner for Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, the compact, uniquely fluid and imaginative dancer with whom she has worked closely for the past decade. Mead—a petite, ballet-trained Juilliard graduate—soon found herself in Tharp’s studio.

“Charlie and I worked together that July in her studio. It was amazing and terrifying. Charlie’s just a force of nature,” Mead says with a big laugh. “To dance with him is really educational! He’s very analytical; we would discuss, ‘What’s our impulse here? Why do I have this response at this moment? Why would you turn away?’ He’s also incredibly physical and incredibly technical. So to keep up with him, I definitely had to get my chops in order.”

Mead had danced some Tharp with American Repertory Ballet before working with the choreographer on Movin’ Out. “She’s tough and demanding, but she’s also more supportive than any other director I’ve ever worked for. She has very high standards, but it’s inspiring to try to reach those standards—rather than oppressive. In the studio the energy level is so vibrating.” Mead and Neshyba-Hodges are the sweet innocents of Come Fly Away—the least experienced and most filled with wonder when it comes to romance.

In contrast, Plantadit and Roberts portray a couple who come in with plenty of history, and create a good deal more during their impassioned duets. “You have to be a daredevil, no doubt about it. That’s one of the things that attracts me to her,” says Plantadit, who found her way to Tharp at a Movin’ Out audition. “Twyla lives for the potential in all the moments. Because of this, you can go onstage and encounter the material in its purest form. The movement is so defiant. For a woman, I think that’s empowering. There is an absolute equality in the way she partners. It’s witty, full of humor—and unexpected.”

In selecting a partner for Selya, Tharp made a brilliant—if seemingly unlikely—choice. Last March, shortly after a New York Times article revealed that Holley Farmer—whose luminous authority and preternatural control had enhanced Merce Cunningham’s repertory for 13 years—would soon be dropped from his company, Tharp asked her associate producer to call Farmer to come over “and move around a little bit.”

Farmer had actually auditioned for a 1996 Tharp project (as had Okamoto), but soon after got word the project was on hold. “I had always wanted to work with her,” Farmer says. But the offer to join Cunningham arrived just then, and the rest is history. Last spring, right after her final tour with Cunningham, she began working with Tharp. “She started putting layers of character on top of the movement phrases, asking me to portray different things—being a pal with Rika, being a femme fatale. I felt very uncomfortable, but very excited.”

In Atlanta, Farmer made a glamorous entrance down a staircase, as a woman with many admirers. She arrives with one partner (Matthew Dibble, who then takes up with Okamoto) but soon moves on to another (Selya). Tharp, says Farmer, explained that her character “makes a big impression when she comes in. She’s going to get what she wants. She represents the alpha female in that way. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but once I started living the scenes with the other people, and listening to everything Twyla said, it started coming together.”

As part of the rehearsal process, “we all had names and backstories,” Farmer recalls. “That really appealed to me, and it sent me on a research jag—looking at this woman culturally in her time, what her relationships to men were.” Farmer faced myriad adaptations as she shifted from Cunning­ham to Tharp. “The challenge was remembering that there’s a front—literally. I had to remind myself about frontal presentation of the body—and allow whatever character interaction was happening to be viewed. I would often do brilliant things facing upstage,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Drawing on the range of talent and experience these dancers deliver—and their equally distinctive partners—Tharp has created a production marked by dramatic nuance as well as spectacular dancing.  Farmer observes, “I feel that in this piece, Twyla’s showing four women that she knows intimately—because she’s lived them.”

Susan Reiter writes about dance for
New York Press and the Los Angeles Times.

From top: Rika Okamoto; Karine Plantadit; Laura Mead; Holly Farmer. Photos by Matthew Karas.