The Pacific Northwest Ballet goes out of its way to make every season opener festive, but when the company opens its 40th season this year, it will be celebrating something very special: the culmination of a residency by choreographer Twyla Tharp — one of the most important choreographers working today.
The all-Tharp program will feature not only the world premiere of "Waiting at the Station," a collaboration with New Orleans composer and pianist Allen Toussaint, but the PNB premiere of Tharp’s Scottish-inspired "Brief Fling" and a repeat performance of her ballroom dance Frank Sinatra homage, "Nine Sinatra Songs."
For many top ballet companies — like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet and The Royal Ballet — permanent resident choreographers are a status symbol. But they're also a costly addition to a company.
Before Artistic Director Peter Boal took over in 2005, PNB had a resident choreographer in longtime former co-Artistic Director Kent Stowell.
But unlike Stowell, Boal is not a choreographer. And though he made it a priority to attract a wide range of important guest choreographers, many of them new to PNB, there are certain experiences a dancer only gains by working with an artist-in-residence: Learning ballets created specifically for them, becoming an integral part of the choreographer’s creative process or becoming an expert in a resident artist's particular style.
“One of the things I thought was important is to give an audience the chance to see a choreographer’s body of work, so that they can say ‘I see themes, I can see where they’ve broken with tradition,’” Boal explains.
Boal first met Tharp at the beginning of his New York City Ballet career, when she “stole” him from fellow choreographer Jerome Robbins for her part of the ballet she and Robbins were creating. “She made me laugh from day one. Her work is so unexpected. Everyone thinks they know where she is going, but she always takes you by surprise,” he says. “and she likes to push dancers to the limit. She turns dancers into better dancers.”
Boal admits that a permanent resident choreographer would do a lot for PNB, but says that’s not in the picture at the moment. For now, he’s clearly delighted that Tharp agreed to this one-year residency, which he regards as a great gift to his dancers. “At the end of their careers, our dancers can say that they worked with Twyla and had a really full experience with one of the great choreographers of our time.”
Tharp’s PNB residency began about a year ago, when PNB performed an all-Tharp program in Spoleto, Italy, but her most intense work with PNB's dancers didn't kick off until March, when she visited Seattle for a few weeks to start working with the company on "Waiting". By the time she arrived, she’d already developed a number of improvisations to Toussaint’s original score, dancing all the roles herself at her studio in New York. The pace picked up in late August when she returned to Seattle to complete the choreography and all the production elements.
Tharp’s ongoing presence has clearly energized the company. “I’ve had a lot of one on one rehearsals with her,” says PNB principal dancer James Moore, who dances "Waiting's" central role. “That could be tedious, but it hasn’t been with her. Every hour is productive. She definitely has an idea, but it’s not specific and she encourages you to take risks, to go out on a limb. It feels like a collaborative process where the dancers have a voice.”
Kiyon Gaines agrees. A dance maker in his own right, Gaines also performs in Waiting and served as Tharp’s assistant during her residency. “It’s very freeing to work with her. She always wants you to be yourself and tap into your special quality. She may have one idea about you, but then she works with you and that idea evolves. She’s really in tune with everybody.”
Tharp attributes her ability to bring out the best in the dancers she works with to her own performing career. “A lot of choreographers work from the front, and not from the inside of the dancer,” she explains. “I work from the inside of the dancer.” Even though she hasn’t performed in front of the footlights for years, the 72-year old Tharp works hard at staying in shape, doing a ballet barre and other exercises every day. “I look at dancers and I have a sense of what they can do because I have a sense of what I can do,” she says.
Tharp is also a realist about what she can expect from dancers, at PNB and at the many companies around the world with whom she works. “There are some passages that dancers will find difficult," she explains, "so you have a choice. You can either make them miserable or you can change it. I will sometimes choose to make them miserable in order to do what Peter says, which is to give them a challenge. Other times I will say ‘This is not worth it, this is apples and oranges, their solution is equally valid,’ so that as much as anything, I think the dancers feel listened to and their bodies feel respected.”
Of the three works on the Air Twyla program, the most anticipated is clearly Waiting at the Station, which represents not just another Tharp world premiere for PNB but also a new choreographic direction for her. Although it’s far from a story ballet, the 32-minute Waiting definitely has what Tharp calls a “dramatic focus” and distinct characters enacting basic human dramas.
Tharp says she won’t know until the curtain goes down on opening night whether Waiting is a success or not, but from Boals’ perspective, there’s no question that the residency has been. By the time the residency is over, Tharp will have worked with every department at PNB, done numerous interviews, met with patrons, appeared at a choreographer’s reception, provided a ballet for professional division students, offered a lecture-demonstration and taught three weeks of classes in her distinctive technique, which she calls Tree Frog.
“It feels like everyone in the institution got to breathe Twyla Tharp,” says Boal, “and for audiences, looking at an evening of her work will give them a better chance to understand what she’s doing and what she’s capable of.”
If you go: "Air Twyla," September 27-October 6 at Marion McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle. Tickets start at $28 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-441-2424), or online at pnb.org. Information about special events in connection with "Air Twyla" is at http://www.pnb.org/Season/13-14/AirTwyla/#EventsOffers.