Elfman, Tharp to team up on ballet
By Vicki Smith Paluch
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
"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
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
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
"I thought she would pick two or three, but she liked them all,"
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,"
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."