Elfman, Tharp to team up on ballet

By Vicki Smith Paluch
Pasadena Star-News
Uploaded 2008.08.02
Source: pasadenastarnews.com
Making his debut as a ballet composer, Hollywood's Danny Elfman decided he wanted to team up with none other than Twyla Tharp, the most influential choreographer of her generation, and perhaps of any generation.
Their ballet, "Rabbit and Rogue," reflects their joint affinity for cartoons, juxtaposition and taking audiences on an E-ticket ride.
Co-commissioned by American Ballet Theatre and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, "Rabbit and Rogue" will have its West Coast premiere during ABT's engagement at Segerstrom Hall. The performance will begin with the revival of Harald Lander's " tudes," an abstract study of bravura ballet technique.
"Rabbit and Rogue" is led by two virtuoso males - Ethan Stiefel and Hernan Cornejo in the first cast - who engage in a competition for center stage, mixing balletic pyrotechnics, various dance styles and plain old guy stuff. They are joined by male-female couples who have their own battle of the sexes. Both Rabbit and Rogue engage in their own battle for the attention of the females, and through their opposition and competition they learn how to find balance and harmony.
As a choreographer, the 67-year-old Tharp said her challenge is to challenge her dancers. She said she created the role of Rogue for Stiefel, whom she worked with in 1998 in her ballet, "Known by Heart," which uses many different styles of dancing.
"Ethan is a singular talent," she said. "He is a phenomenal dancer who, when he is in his groove, is unbeatable."
For Rabbit, she tapped the lightning-fast Cornejo, who she decided to challenge by creating an adagio for him.
Tharp said that during the three decades she has been creating ballets for ABT and working with its dancers, she has noted that they have greatly increased their athletic prowess and dance technique.
"The original cast of `Push Comes to Shove' (1976) would be hard pressed to dance `Rabbit and Rogue,"' she said.
The other principals dancing on opening night include Paloma Herrera, Gennadi Saveliev, Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg. The second cast is Sascha Radetsky, Marcelo Gomes, Maria Riccetto, Jose Manuel Carreno, Kristi Boone and Cory Stearns.
Just as Tharp challenges dancers by giving them a variety of dance forms, Elfman's lush and exotic score challenges the musicians as they must run the musical gamut from American ragtime to the percussive Indonesian gamelan, as well as traditional Euro-Russian romanticism.
The score is cinematic, and so is the choreography.
"The cinema was a common ground for Danny and me," Tharp said, noting that as a teenager, she worked in the snack bar of her parents' drive-in movie theater in Rialto. "I grew up watching a lot of cartoons and I love them. Things move very fast, and turn corners very quickly."
A Los Angeles native, Elfman, 55, has composed 52 film scores, including those for superheroes ("Batman," "Spiderman," "Hellboy II",) and animated films ("Corpse Bride") and television cartoons. He only started working in classical music in 2005 with his "Serenada Schizophrana" for the American Composers Orchestra.
The two wanted to tap into cartoon speed and playfulness.
"It may surprise some but I believe there is a place for the humor in ballet. We can use humor to tell us about tragedy and life," Tharp said.
When "Rabbit and Rogue" had its world premiere last June at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, the audiences responded with standing ovations, but the critics complained that Tharp recycled features of her earlier works.
When asked about the criticism, Tharp said that in "Rabbit and Rogue", "absolutely nothing is repeated." However, she said she does engage in "self-reference" because she has created a distinct dance vocabulary and unique style over her 43-year career.
"It's like a rock and a hard place," Tharp said. "People want you always to be new, and yet they want you to be `authentic,"' she said.
Tharp holds the distinction of crossing the great divide between ballet and modern dance, when she melded them together in "Push Comes to Shove" (1976), her first ballet for ABT and its star, Mikhail Baryshnikov. The work challenged the dancers and delighted audiences with its fast, furious and funny choreography.
Now, ABT has 18 Tharp works in its repertory, more than any other choreographer.
"I feel grateful for the resources of the ballet theater and their effort to save my work for the next generation," she said.
During her career, Tharp has choreographed more than 135 dances for her own company and others, as well as ice skaters, television, film ("Hair," "Amadeus" and "Ragtime" and "White Nights") and Broadway ("The Catherine Wheel" "Singin' in the Rain," "Movin' Out" and "Times They Are A-Changin"'.)
Her inventiveness is astounding.
Working with Tharp on "Rabbit and Rogue" was a dream come true for Elfman. He had heard that Tharp could be difficult and demanding, but he said that wasn't the case.
For their first meeting, Elfman said that he took a dozen or so pieces of music to Tharp.
"I thought she would pick two or three, but she liked them all," he said.
Then the challenge was to put them together.
"There is a rag that revolves around electronic sounds, lots of drums, all integrated into a very dense framework, and a Euro-Russian finale. Because I was writing for Twyla, I wanted to keep a sense of rhythm and propulsion and a strong melodic core," he said.
As the score was nearing completion, he returned to her Central Park apartment/studio to get her final notes. He said he was prepared to take copious notes back to his Los Angeles studio, but was given "tweaks."
"I'm used to film directors whose vision of a scene is totally different from mine and I have to toss out what I have done. This was so liberating," he said.
As a newcomer to the classical music world, Elfman said he worried about his decision to amplify the electronic music as well as the piano in the orchestra pit. Tharp encouraged Elfman to follow his instincts.
"She said, `You know the music critics are going to hate (the amplification) anyway. But you know that you want to knock their socks off.' It showed her rock `n' roll approach," Elfman recalled. "I love that woman."
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