Twyla Tharp, a legend in the dance world, is in Seattle to create two world-premiere dances for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Twyla Tharp, tiny in jeans and white sneakers, watches a rehearsal intently, seeing how Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dancers bring life to the well-etched vision in her head. She stops the action often, with a quick, sharp “Thank you!,” presenting refinements, carefully honing something already lovely. She is unsmiling but not grim. After a few more seconds of dancing are performed to her satisfaction, she asks, “Wasn’t that much more fun?”
Tharp, a legend in the dance world, is in town to create two world-premiere dances for the company. Both will be performed in PNB’s season-opening “All Tharp” evening beginning Thursday, along with her popular 1982 work “Nine Sinatra Songs.”
Few choreographers have bridged the gap between ballet and modern dance as Tharp has. Beginning as a modern dancer in downtown 1960s New York, she went on to choreograph well over 100 works for modern and ballet companies, along with several movies and Broadway musicals. Her long list of awards and honors includes, just in recent months, the Jerome Robbins Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors. At 67, she remains a formidable creative force, with her work performed worldwide and her schedule crammed full.
So how did PNB snag not one but two Tharp new works? Thank artistic director Peter Boal, whom Tharp has known since he was a brand-new New York City Ballet dancer appearing in a 1984 work Tharp choreographed with Robbins, “Brahms/Handel.” “Peter had just come into the company, so he was a baby,” she remembered. Since then, she’s watched his career and calls him “an artist of the first caliber.” She warmly praised his directorship at PNB: “He is currently as a director something that is extremely unusual, and that is without ego. He allows work to happen which he believes in, but he does not feel the necessity of imposing on.”
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Boal introduced Tharp to PNB’s audiences quickly upon taking over artistic directorship of the company in 2005. “Nine Sinatra Songs” appeared in Boal’s first season — a sleek, playful series of ballroom duets. (That work flowed, Tharp said, from research she’d done for the movie “Ragtime,” specifically on the famed ballroom-dance duo of Vernon and Irene Castle.) The whimsical aqua-follies of “Waterbaby Bagatelles” and the breathless drive of “In the Upper Room” soon followed, stretching PNB dancers and audiences.
When Boal called to ask about the possibility of making a new work in Seattle, Tharp said, “It happened that I had a bit of time.” So not one but two pieces emerged. “Opus 111” is a dance for five couples set to a Johannes Brahms score described by Tharp as “the epitome of romantic composition.” “Afternoon Ball,” with a score by Russian minimalist composer Vladimir Martynov, is a quintet that grew, Tharp said, from her thoughts about virtual reality in opposition to romanticism.
Tharp arrived at PNB this summer with both pieces “crystal clear,” she said. “By now I’ve had a certain number of working years, shall we say, and a certain amount of experience where I have some sense of what’s possible for dance and dancers and what’s not, and I don’t ask the impossible.” She had visited PNB several times and was familiar with the dancers and their strengths, describing them as “a very, very good working group.”
“I knew — without having actually had the opportunity to work with them, which is a very different thing — from watching them,” she said. “I have this capacity for being a body snatcher. I look at the kids at the barre, and I go [a sudden whoosh of breath], ‘OK, that’s Carla [Körbes],’ ‘OK, that’s Jonathan [Porretta],’ ‘OK, that’s Louise [Nadeau],’ like that. Then I kind of imprint them in my own body and I say, within the realm of this dancer, would that be a reality? And I say, yes. So it’s not like I’m coming in here blind.”
Watching Tharp meticulously shape “Opus 111” in rehearsal (assisted by guest artist/stager Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, a former member of Tharp’s company now studying at the University of Washington), you can’t help but wonder what it’s like for an artist to create a work and then walk away, letting other dancers and other companies leave their marks on it. “It’s anguish,” Tharp said, in her blunt way. “I try to be realistic.”
She described two points of view on repertory, which she watched as a young dancer. “Balanchine always said to companies who wanted to dance his works: Take them, do them, learn from them. And that was it. He didn’t cast, he didn’t rehearse, he just wanted his material to create better dancers. And I feel the same about mine. Jerry [Robbins] wanted to go, he wanted to cast, he wanted to do the second cast, he wanted to change the piece, he wanted to deal with all the issues of its rehearsal, it was an agony. I decided long ago, no, no, no, this will not be my approach.”
“Always one of my goals is to do material that will enable a dancer to develop and expand their literal way of moving, to make them, in quotation marks, ‘better dancers,’ or at least to open up questions for them about what dancing is, and not just what dancing is but what a dance is.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-27175 or email@example.com