Tharp looking for RWB’s ‘hungry’ dancers
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/05/2011 (4410 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Choreographer Twyla Tharp titled her autobiography Push Comes to Shove, after the landmark 1976 ballet she created to showcase Mikhail Baryshnikov.
If you push the 69-year-old legend, who is in Winnipeg now, she’ll shove back.
“Don’t try and paint me in a corner here,” she sternly replies when asked which tale by Scottish writer George MacDonald has inspired the full-length narrative ballet she’ll create for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s 2012-13 season.
We’ll know when Tharp is ready to tell us. The score will be by Franz Schubert. She’ll draw characters, she says, from one of MacDonald’s books (19th-century fantasies such as The Light Princess and At the Back of the North Wind) but it won’t be a literal adaptation.
“He was someone who believed in the righteous purpose of being alive,” she says about MacDonald, whose stories she loved as a child. “I’ve always thought of (my) dances as having at their core beauty and righteousness.”
Small in stature but forceful in personality, Tharp is dressed in jeans, runners, a white shirt and a large scarf on her first visit to the RWB studios.
The longtime New Yorker, famed as a crossover choreographer who melds classical ballet with modern, jazz, folk and social dance, has created more than 135 works. She has choreographed for movies such as Hair and created Broadway shows to the music of Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra.
RWB is partnering financially with Georgia’s similar-sized Atlanta Ballet to commission the new Tharp work.
The Atlanta company will dance the world première in February, 2012. Tharp will return to Winnipeg to prepare RWB for the Canadian première in the fall of 2012. She enjoys giving public lecture-demonstrations, she says, and hopes to do that here.
Peering intently through owlish glasses, she’s warm but no-nonsense — a strong-willed fast talker with a job to do. She’s here to get a sense of the company, both in the studio and onstage as it performs her challenging 1986 ballet In the Upper Room, part of the Bright Lights, Big City program through Sunday.
She chose not to attend Wednesday’s opening. “They’re going to be exhausted and nervous. I’ll wait until it settles down a bit. I want to see them do the best show they can do.”
In the studio she’ll be gauging the dancers, and not just for their technical prowess. “Who are the hungry, thirsty movers? Who are the ones who want a new adventure?”
Hearing that principal dancer Tara Birtwhistle is hanging up her pointe shoes, Tharp says, “Maybe we can talk her out of retiring. We have a role for an older, great dancer.”
The MacDonald ballet will include dancers of all ages, from children to older character artists. When she casts students from the RWB and Atlanta schools, it will be the first time Tharp has ever used children onstage.
“This is a part of the tradition of the full-length (story ballets). They encompass the family sense of what a company is…. That’s something I think is extremely valuable. As far as children themselves go, I suppose having a grandchild now has some impact on how one views the world.”
Born in Indiana and raised there until her family moved to California when she was eight, Tharp calls herself a Midwesterner. When she arrived here four days ago — her first time in Winnipeg — she immediately responded to the prairie landscape. “I love open space,” she says.
RWB has danced one previous Tharp ballet, the Beach Boys-scored Deuce Coupe in the 1990s. She watched it on video and it passed muster. “Their Deuce Coupe was very good,” she says.
The widely performed In the Upper Room is often called a signature Tharp work. Is she comfortable with that?
“It’s too soon. I’m not dead,” she deadpans. “Give me a little time.”
Some of her ballets are transitional or bridge pieces, she says, while others stand as statements in and of themselves. In the Upper Room, with a score by famed composer Philip Glass, is a statement.
The title seems to have religious connotations. Tharp prefers to leave it open to interpretation, but does mention the well-known song in which the upper room is a metaphor for heaven.
“It’s a great spiritual, Mahalia Jackson’s rendition,” she says.
“The reality of the title is that Phil Glass had, contractually, the right to approve the title. In the Upper Room was the only title we could agree on.”
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