PNB company members rehearsing "Waiting at the Station."
At a lecture and demonstration last Wednesday night, legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp called her artist-in-residence commission at Pacific Northwest Ballet “an invitation to fall in love.”
As PNB's first artist in residence (really!) since its 1972 inception, Tharp saw an opportunity to create "something I can't live without." From this broad and dramatic (in other words, very Tharp-ian) declaration, Waiting at the Station was born. Tonight will be its world premiere in Pacific Northwest Ballet's all-Tharp program at McCaw Hall.
PNB's lecture/demonstrations are a fascinating way to dig around at the foundations a dance work and catch a glimpse of what happens before the curtain goes up. Is there a story behind the work? How are the dancers chosen for the roles? What do they look like in normal clothes and out of stage makeup? On Wednesday night, Tharp guided the audience through the development of parts of Waiting and Brief Fling, two of the pieces in this weekend’s season opener. The program will also feature Nine Sinatra Songs, a glamorous ballroom-esque ballet set to the music of Frank Sinatra, although it was not discussed or demonstrated at the Wednesday lecture.
I love Twyla Tharp's choreography because it is familiar. In the same way I'll pop in a DVD of Anne of Green Gables when I'm sick or pick up a Tom Clancy novel for a long plane ride, I turn to YouTube videos of Nine Sinatra Songs and other Tharpy things when surfing the net for dance videos to stare at while drinking wine on the couch.
Sinatra Songs premiered in 1982 in Vancouver BC, but is perhaps best known from the 1984 televised "Great Performances" version starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and members of American Ballet Theater. It's sexy, fancy—Oscar de la Renta designed the costumes—and sometimes deliciously uncomfortable to watch, as in the duet to "That's Life," where two frustrated dancers, who can't decide between fucking or punching it out, violently fling their limbs about and force each other into dramatic turns.
Brief Fling is another classic Tharp piece with music by Michel Colombier and Percy Grainger. The dancers are divided into "clans" and costumed by Issac Mizrahi into rich reds, blues and greens. When the piece was choreographed, Tharp said on Wednesday, Fling's amalgamation of classical ballet moves and pedestrian movement was considered very "modern."
This marriage of the classical and the everyday isn't a big deal anymore—anyone who's been to a dance performance in the last twenty years (outside of Nutcracker or Swan Lake) has probably seen a movement or two that can be described as "pedestrian.” But this marriage is perhaps Tharp's greatest contribution to dance culture. Even modern dance, at its beginnings, was still dance, movements that were unlike anything the audience had seen, let alone executed. Tharp's signatures were all over even the small bit of Brief Fling that was excerpted as part of Wednesday's demonstration—the everyday strides and postures, playful glances over shoulders, the kind of hip-thrusting boogey-ing that many of us pull out when executing a spur-of-the-moment happy dance, all mixed with classical ballet to create a flow that is very comfortable to watch.
Tharp relies heavily on this brand of playful, pedestrian choreography in her brand-new Waiting at the Station, with music by New Orleans R&B composer/musician Allen Toussaint. The excerpts shown on Wednesday revealed a somewhat formulaic plotline: two male/female couples enter, one girl makes the moves on the other's boy and rivalry follows. Enter a strong male character who provides wisdom and guidance and everyone dances away into the sunset. The story would be dull if it didn't highlight such a fantastic display of acting and personality that we don't always get to see from PNB's dancers. Even in in the short excerpts shown on Wednesday, Carrie Imler was feisty and magnetic as the girl who must fight to keep her man from being lured away by her taller, faster-moving antagonist.
This unusual infusion of personality and Tharp's casting choices (in addition to regular company favorites and principal dancers, some dancers were chosen because of their physical size or rehearsal schedules) mix up the typical hierarchy seen on classical ballet stages. Everyone appears to be having a really good time, the gifts of younger dancers are highlighted instead of underplayed in favor of principal dancers, and Toussaint's music is so rich in Americana and poly-rhythms that there are numerous interesting things to watch at any given moment.
James Moore's role as the father in Waiting is the most eye-catching part of the whole thing. He can groove with an exceptional degree of grace and control—it was a challenge to pay attention to anything else while he was onstage.