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The Twyla Tharp Ballet We Nearly Lost

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Oct 22, 2014
How American Ballet Theatre rescued Bach Partita

A new ballet requires weeks of intensive rehearsal in order to reach the stage, and if it's not properly taken care of, it can become extremely difficult to revive. In fact, if it isn't performed for a substantial period of time, and if the dancers on whom it was made start to lose their muscle memory of the choreography, then the piece can slip away altogether.

Last fall, American Ballet Theatre rescued an important piece from that oblivion. Twyla Tharp's rigorously beautiful Bach Partita had been made for the company in 1983, performed no more than ten times through 1985, and then vanished. Thanks to the dedication of Susan Jones, a longtime and indispensable ballet mistress with the company---who was in the studio as Tharp's assistant as the ballet was created 30 years earlier---Bach Partita came back to the stage. It was danced with astonishing commitment and panache by a new generation of dancers. New Yorkers now have another chance to see this nearly-lost sensation.

After playing Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater last year, it will return to the space for three performances next week, as part of ABT's fall season in New York.

Back in 1981, the versatile and ever-surprising Tharp was on quite a roll with her own company. The Catherine Wheel, set to an original David Byrne score, played Broadway that year, and in 1982 she had a huge success with the sensuously elegant Nine Sinatra Songs. For her return to ABT (where she'd created the exuberant and witty Push Comes to Shove, a huge hit in 1976), Tharp chose a 30-minute Bach score and choreographed fiercely complex, purely classical choreography for a cast of 36. New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff's delivered an enthusiastic review: "Miss Tharp thinks amazingly big here in every sense of the word," she wrote. "For the first time, she

 has attempted a true neoclassical ballet whose movement is rooted in ballet's academic code rather than her own modern- dance idiom with incorporation of ballet steps." She later described the piece as "a treasure house of dance invention for those fascinated by formal intricacy and experiments with movement." Recalling Bach Partita, Jones says, "I think it was really Bach that drove her. She has her point of view about the music and how it should be played, how it's meant to be. She was really challenging the dancers. I think that the hardest thing for them---aside from absorbing Twyla's style and getting it into their bodies---was the speed she required. It was choreographed to a Heifetz recording that is just faster than the speed of light!" [The ballet is always performed with a live violinist.]

The original cast included three principal couples, seven soloist couples, and an ensemble of 16 women. "Twyla was developing her relationship with ABT and was discovering more things about the classical vocabulary," recalls Robert La Fosse, who was the youngest of the six principals. "She was pushing the balletic partnering to new limits and challenging us with movements that changed directions constantly." Jones, who rehearses many Tharp dances, often staging them for various companies, is passionate about this one. "I feel it's one of her best pieces. The fact that it's Bach, and that it's all of these dancers dancing their hearts out to this one violinist who's making this incredible sound---I think it's exhilarating. I didn't think this ballet would ever go away."

The challenge of finding a violinist who could play the score superbly at the tempi Tharp required was one reason the ballet slipped out of repertory. Programming demands---ABT devotes most of its performances to full-evening, narrative ballets---and other company considerations also played a role. But Jones always kept it in mind. She recalls a 1996 dinner with Tharp when they discussed what it would take to get Bach Partita back on stage. Little did Jones realize, when about 15 years later that became an actual possibility, how complicated the process would be. No visual documentation of decent quality was available to help jog Jones' memory. There was a black-and-white performance videotape, but it was overexposed. "At center stage, there was detail that was missing from the steps that I knew was there," she says. "It was a process of seeing the root step and dusting off the cobwebs." A studio rehearsal videotape was filmed a week before the premiere, but afterward Tharp made some pivotal changes in the distribution of the roles.

Over the years, Jones would urge Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director, to commit to a revival of the ballet. Considerable rehearsal time would be required, however, and casting the many demanding roles would be a challenge. On her own, Jones began preparing. "Around 2011, I thought I would just start looking at these tapes. In whatever free time I had, I started notating and trying to reconstruct the ballet. And I did that for two years."

Finally, last year, ABT had a longer-than-usual rehearsal period, substantial enough for Jones to delve into re-staging the work for the dancers of today. Tharp herself was present at rehearsals regularly for four of the six weeks.

"She was really involved in the coaching. She knew that it needed that," Jones says. La Fosse was in the audience last November at the Koch to witness the rebirth of Bach Partita. "The new cast at ABT is superb," he says. "They have a better grasp at the technical aspects of her style. It was like seeing a whole new ballet unfold in front of my eyes. So many moments stay in my memory. I can't wait to see it again."

For Jones, seeing the ballet come to life again was "incredible, really phenomenal." But now that it's back in repertory, her focus is on keeping it in top shape. "Now that they've gotten it in their blood, now it's my job to make sure that the edge is there, and that they don't let it become generic movement," she says. "It has to reflect Twyla's style. It's part of the life of any ballet. You have to keep it fresh and keep the spontaneity there."


Susan Reiter
is a journalist based in New York City

Photo by Gene Schiavone

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.