Twyla Tharp seeks balance in her new ballet

Extracts only
By Roslyn Sulcas
In International Herald Tribune (global edition of New York Times) 2008.06.02

[Twyla Tharp with Danny Elfman, left, and Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theater, during a rehearsal of Rabbit and Rogue. ( Gene Schiavone)]


Rabbit and Rogue, which was jointly commissioned with the Orange County Performing Arts Center, will be Tharp's 15th work for Ballet Theater. This is the company with which she has had her most enduring professional relationship, beginning in 1976, when she created "Push Comes to Shove" for Mikhail Baryshnikov.


Rabbit and Rogue seems to be the outcome of several chance factors, chief among them Elfman's surprising desire to write a score for a ballet.

A film composer who has collaborated closely with Tim Burton and written the themes for the television shows The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives,Elfman is a man of diverse musical passions. He spent 10 years as part of the rock band Oingo Boingo, has written a symphonic work for the American Composers Orchestra and, much like Tharp, sees no need for barriers between high and popular art.

Elfman describes himself as a musical maximalist and a dire pessimist. ("When Tim Burton first asked me to write a score for him," he said, "I told him I'd ruin his film.") So he took a dozen or so pieces of music to Tharp when they met to discuss the ballet.

"I thought she would pick two or three, but she liked them all," he said. "So then the challenge was to put them together. There is some gamelan music, a rag that revolves around electronic sounds, lots of drums, all integrated into a very dense framework."

From a run-through seen last month it was clear that the new ballet is part of Tharp's continuing dialogue with ballet classicism.

"The title comes from 'Sam and Mary,' a solo study of rhythmic evolutions I did some while ago to Brahms songs," she wrote. "As I worked I realized that there is a constant struggle going on inside us all between left and right, or Sam and Mary as I called them then. Equilibrium has never been my forte, and therefore seeking repose for this ever shifting internal mechanism of left and right has always seemed an enviable goal. I am in awe of that moment when the two sides - left and right, Sam and Mary, fast-fleeing Rabbit and pursuing Rogue - give up the chase and work in tandem to create the effortless suspension in space that is classical perch."

When Tharp speaks of the classical, she doesn't necessarily mean ballet. Her loose-limbed, squiggly, spiraling movements - rigorously constructed, intensely demanding to perform yet often casual in effect - both use ballet technique and slip effortlessly around its forms. At its best no definitions fit - there is simply the body, dancing.