How Twyla Tharp's moves met Danny Elfman's music

By Susan Reite
Los Angeles Times
Uploaded 2008.08.03
NEW YORK — AN EXPANSIVE new work from one of the world's leading choreographers, set to an original score by a high-profile composer making his first foray into the world of dance — this is hardly American Ballet Theatre's usual fare these days. The multi-part programs that once were the troupe's standard offerings have given way for the most part to full-evening narrative works, especially for touring engagements, as presenters prefer to play things safe.
But one of the company's most ambitious new ventures, Twyla Tharp's "Rabbit and Rogue," with a score by Danny Elfman, is not only beginning six performances at the Orange County Performing Artscenter on Wednesday but was also co-commissioned by the venue.
The 45-minute work, for a cast of 22, received decidedly mixed reviews after its premiere in New York in June. But it's undeniably big and bold and filled with dense movement. The five sections of Elfman's score specifically allude to such disparate musical sources as ragtime and gamelan, but his subtly shifting, propulsive music also has moments evocative of Lou Harrison, Darius Milhaud, raucous circusy sounds and shimmering Minimalism.
Tharp, who last choreographed for ballet companies in 2000, has returned to ballet in a big way this year. In March, Miami City Ballet premiered her Nightspot, to a commissioned score by Elvis Costello. Rabbit and Rogue followed, and these days she is in Seattle working on a pair of premieres for an all-Tharp program by Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Although she formed a chamber-sized touring company in 2000 for which she made several bracing new works — right after creating imposing ballets to Beethoven (for New York City Ballet) and Brahms (for ABT) — Tharp soon went in a very different direction, collaborating with two of the foremost living singer-songwriters on Broadway projects that stretched the definition of a musical. "Movin' Out," set to Billy Joel songs, was a triumph; The Times They Are A-Changin', to Bob Dylan, less so.
In 2006 — around the time the latter show was making its move from San Diego, where it originated, to Broadway — Elfman was approached by ABT about the idea of a commissioned score. "I'm not well versed in contemporary choreography, but they invited me to their gala in New York that fall, and Twyla's 'In the Upper Room' was fresh in my mind when they asked me which choreographer I'd like to work with," the former frontman of the rock group Oingo Boingo and composer of scores for such films as Spider-Man and the original Batman recalled recently by phone from his Los Angeles office. But he said consternation greeted his mention of Tharp's name. He was told how difficult a Tharp collaboration would be, how officials doubted she'd be interested. Back in L.A. a few days later, though, he got a call: Tharp was very interested. Could he return to New York for a meeting?
"We hung out for an afternoon and said let's do it. We got to know each other, talking about narrative versus non-narrative, the pros and cons of each," Elfman said. From the start, the work was envisioned as half of a program — longer than the standard 20- to 30-minute repertory work but less than evening-length.
Tharp, despite the oft-chronicled many hours she spent at her family's drive-in while growing up in Rialto, claims, "I'm not a moviegoer, so I hadn't seen his work there." But perched at an outdoor table at a restaurant near her Upper West Side apartment, sportily dressed, looking tanned and far younger than her 67 years, she explained why Elfman intrigued her as a collaborator: "He has a ton of energy. He has a lot of range, he's very versatile — and he had his own rock 'n' roll band. Who could not love that? Also, he knows his film history, and he knows his 20th century classical music history — the Russians in particular."
L.A. native Elfman, 55, noted, "The music that inspired me in the first place was mostly composed for ballet. My connection to ballet was through music. It was Rite of Spring that turned my world upside down when I was 17. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet contains everything one needs to learn film scoring. It has mirth, excitement, fighting, romance, whimsy. Give me Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich any day. It gets my blood going.
"I figured, 'I'll start and then go play music with Twyla and see what she responds to.' I wrote about 14 pieces at the beginning. Her response was more complex than what I imagined. It wasn't, 'This I could dance to, and this I can't.' It was, 'Oh wow, I can take these pieces and put them together. This next to this would be great. This could be a pas de deux' — stuff I never would have imagined.
"The first time we hung out, listening to a lot of records," he said, "she happened to be listening to a Scott Joplin opera. I thought, 'I've never written a rag. I'm going to write her a rag.' And I knew I was going to use a lot of percussion. I wanted to end up with five movements. I set myself certain parameters: that every movement would borrow from each other. I tried to create something where, if I had the movements laid out, if they were made of glass and I dropped them, I would take fragments of each of them and mix them up, so that each was borrowing bits from the other."
Said Tharp: "Danny had a sense of structure that was symphonic. Also, he's used to action — to seeing and then reinforcing. So he was ideal, from the point of view of supporting action. He was very focused, a delight to work with. He would always take the extra step — sending you three versions instead of just two."
Rabbit and Rogue is dominated by two male dancers who portray feisty, playfully competitive figures (in the first cast, principals Herman Cornejo as Rabbit and Ethan Stiefel as Rogue). Yet Tharp is adamantly not telling a story. "My only content was a very physical one: the difference between a force directed against itself and another person and force directed together, outward," she said. What she is exploring in the ballet has roots in "Sam and Mary," a study she made a decade ago to perform in her frequent lecture-demonstrations. "It investigated how all rhythm evolves from a single walking step, and how any of the metric structures come from that shift of weight — right and left.
"I began to think about right and left, to find a sort of duality in the body. From that came this feeling of the opposition we all have inside ourselves, how we have to work to coordinate that power. That's the physical grounding for the scenario of 'Rabbit and Rogue.' Those two characters evolved from that — the ballet did not evolve in language."
In the 20 years since Tharp disbanded her full-time troupe, ABT has been as much home to her as has any company. The connection goes back to the 1976 triumph "Push Comes to Shove," which launched Mikhail Baryshnikov into a brave new world. Rabbit and Rogue is the 15th work she has created for ABT.
Additionally, during the last few seasons, company artistic director Kevin McKenzie has been gradually adding vintage Tharp works to the repertory, giving many of the dancers a grounding in her intricate demands.
Tharp generally maintains a distance from such productions. But she does catch some of them, and she was aware, for instance, of Cornejo's exemplary performances in ABT's productions of her Sinatra Suite and Upper Room. Stiefel had a success in her 1998 "Known by Heart," in which he was blazingly liberated in a knockabout duet with Susan Jaffe.
"That ballet was where our relationship was established," Stiefel, 35, said between rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera House. "Even though the material had been shaped on other dancers, I could make it my own, in terms of the musicality and the intent, the dynamic phrasing. With this one, we went further. I spent two weeks, mano a mano, working with her in the studio in her apartment. She gives you a very clear direction to go in, but she also lets you play."
Stiefel's sense of who Rogue is "came through not in a literal or direct way but just atmospherically. I start onstage by myself, so I set the tone — I'm not a dark force but maybe more mischievous. I don't mind creating chaos along the way."
By contrast with many in the cast, Rabbit was the first close encounter with Tharp for soloist Craig Salstein, 25, one of a quartet of dancers who figure throughout the ballet. He had demonstrated impressive Tharpian chops in Baker's Dozen as well as Upper Room, and when Tharp wanted to start on this latest project in July 2007 with some dancers at her home studio, he volunteered eagerly.
"I would have done the process over and over again," Salstein said. "I can't speak highly enough about her. She was just unbelievable to work with — the communication, the focus she had on us physically and mentally. She just homed in on exactly what she wanted. She could sense what was going to come out emotionally, not just physically. If you were frustrated, she'd like that. She'd say, 'Keep that feeling in there.' Through her choreography, the individual comes out."
As the premiere approached, Elfman endured some tense times because of the limited orchestra rehearsal time allotted by ballet economics. But he was able to sit at the Met and enjoy the revelation of seeing his music transformed into dance by Tharp. He was particularly struck by "her sense of geometry and symmetry, and shaping dynamics in a way that's not what one would think in the broader sense — it was so full of surprises. It was very surreal. It was nothing like what I imagined in my mind's eye — yet I didn't know what to imagine.
"I never had a doubt or question about what she was going to do. I just knew that whatever she did, it was going to be wonderful — at least from my perspective. And she didn't let me down, ever. I saw six out of the seven performances in New York, and at the last one, I was still seeing stuff for the first time."
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