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Putting Their Own Stamp on an Iconic Twyla Tharp Work

By: Susan Reiter
Date: May 14, 2019


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American Ballet Theatre's spring season includes a trio of pieces by the legendary dance-maker


American Ballet Theatre's spring season, which runs through July 6 at the Metropolitan Opera House, is dominated by full-length narrative ballets, from perpetually popular 19th-century classics including Swan Lake and Le Corsaire, to more recent, lit-based works such as Manon and the brand-new Jane Eyre. But interspersed between these plot-driven offerings are two exciting triple bills focused on choreographers who have made major contributions to ABT's repertory.

The Ratmansky Trio (May 21-23) celebrates the tenth anniversary of the company's affiliation with Alexei Ratmansky and includes the world premiere of his latest work, The Seasons. The Tharp Trio (May 30-June 3) features three contrasting pieces by Twyla Tharp, whose fruitful connection to ABT dates back to 1976, when she created Push Comes to Shove for the company's rising star Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Tharp Trio features two pieces that have long been part of ABT's repertoire: her densely inventive Brahms-Haydn Variations from 2000, with five principal couples leading a cast of 30, and In the Upper Room from 1986, an explosion of energy set to a Philip Glass score. New to ABT is Deuce Coupe, a landmark work not only in Tharp's career but also in the history of 20th-century ballet.

In 1973, as a young choreographer with an adventurous outsider reputation, Tharp was invited to choreograph for the Joffrey Ballet. Using both Joffrey members and her own small troupe of wildly individual dancers (including herself), she created Deuce Coupe to Beach Boys songs and hired graffiti artists to paint an evolving backdrop at each performance. One of its most notable elements was the presence of an isolated woman in white, who threaded her way calmly through even the most frenetic sections. As she performed an elegant exposition of pure classical vocabulary, she became the embodiment of order amid chaos. Deuce Coupe was fresh, rigorous and sophisticated, and challenged fixed ideas of what ballet and modern dance should be.

Almost a half century later, ABT's dancers are hoping to put their own stamp on Deuce Coupe as Tharp herself and original cast member Sara Rudner lead the rehearsals. Tony winner Santo Loquasto is designing a new set (no graffiti this time) and costumes inspired by the originals for this production.


Of course aspects that seemed so current in 1973, like The Beach Boys tunes, now feel nostalgic. Yet Tharp is encouraging the cast to approach Deuce Coupe as a new work, not a recreation of period piece. "She gave us a little background," says Tyler Maloney, who performs in Deuce Coupe and admits he only knows the Beach Boys as his grandmother's favorite group. "But she thought it was important for us to put our own influence on it."

Other dancers are embracing the vintage vibe. According to Stephanie Williams, who has roles in all three Tharp works, Deuce Coupe's score is "right in my wheelhouse. I love old music -- anything from the '60s, '70s, '80s. We're rehearsing seven ballets a day, and sometimes you go into a rehearsal tired. But that Beach Boys music comes on and everybody's bopping up and down. I think it's brilliant."

Most of all, the dancers are thrilled to be learning the piece from the 77-year-old legend.

"She's pretty intimidating when you first meet her," admits soloist Katherine Williams, one of two performers alternating in Deuce Coupe's demanding woman in white role. "But we've gotten into a rhythm with her, so she knows our different personalities, and we know how she works. We're very fortunate."

"She's become a more regular presence and has really become a part of the company," adds Maloney. "We all want to soak up everything she's saying -- she's so inspiring. She's really good at showing ballet dancers' technique, but also at making us appear as these down-to-earth beings."

That fusion of classical and contemporary is a hallmark of Tharp's choreography, and serves as a connecting theme for the entire program. "Each piece is so unique, with a different way of moving, with there still being a thread of that unique Twyla-ism," says Stephanie Williams. "It has that musical, natural way of moving that I feel throughout all three pieces, even though they are completely different."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for multiple American Ballet Theatre programs, including Tharp Trio and Whipped Cream. Go here to browse our current offers.

Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.

Top image: Twyla Tharp with Isabella Boylston in rehearsal for Deuce Coupe. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.