UC Berkeley News


As part of Cal Performances' month-long focus on choreographer Twyla Tharp, American Ballet Theatre (left) will perform Baker's Dozen (1979) and the Joffrey Ballet will dance Deuce Coupe. (ABT photo by Lois Greenfield, Joffrey photo by Herbert Migdoll)

Thoroughly modern - and steps ahead of her time
Cal Performances offers a master class (or three) in the seminal work of choreographer Twyla Tharp

| 03 October 2007

When the Joffrey Ballet premiered Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe in 1973, it shook up the traditionalists in its audience. Set to the music of the Beach Boys, Deuce Coupe featured a ballerina calmly dancing through the ABCs of the entire ballet vocabulary of technique while other dancers jubilantly moved around her, wearing bright clothing and referencing popular dances of the day in their movements. During each performance, graffiti artists worked upstage from the dancers, spray-painting paper on long scrolls that were pulled up and used as the backdrop once a section was complete.

Twyla Tharp (Greg Gorman photo)
"Deuce Coupe was the first of its kind," says Cal Performances Director Robert Cole, because it "put ballet and modern dance together with popular music." Cal Performances will itself break new ground in the next five weeks when it presents three of the major ballet companies Tharp worked with mid-career, all with pieces by the choreographer in their current repertories.

"Something like this has not been done before, and I don't know when it will be done again," says Cole.

The Joffrey Ballet will kick off the focus on Twyla Tharp tonight (Thursday, Oct. 4) through Saturday, Oct. 6, with a program that includes Deuce Coupe. Next up will be the Miami City Ballet, Oct. 26-28, with American Ballet Theatre completing the hat trick Nov. 7-11. The companies will perform works by Tharp that debuted between 1973 and 1986, including Deuce Coupe, Nine Sinatra Songs, In the Upper Room, Baker's Dozen, and Sinatra Suite. (For program details, see "Totally Twyla," at right.) In addition, a host of lectures will flesh out the stories about Tharp, her dances, and her influence on American dance.

Totally Twyla

Performances at Zellerbach Hall

The Joffrey Ballet
Thursday - Saturday, Oct. 4-6 Tharp/Deuce Coupe, set to music by the Beach Boys; Dean/"Sometimes It Snows in April" from Billboards, set to music by Prince; Joffrey/Pas des Désses, set to solo piano work by John Field, performed live by Paul Lewis

Miami City Ballet
Friday - Sunday, Oct. 26-28
Tharp/Nine Sinatra Songs, set to songs sung by Frank Sinatra; In the Upper Room, music by Philip Glass; Balanchine/Agon, music by Igor Stravinsky

American Ballet Theatre
Wednesday - Sunday, Nov. 7-11
Program A [Nov. 7-8]: Welch/Clear, set to J.S. Bach; Balanchine/Ballo della Regina, set to Verdi; Robbins/Fancy Free, set to Leonard Bernstein; Pas de deux TBA

Program B [Nov. 9-11]: Tharp/Baker's Dozen, set to music by Willie "The Lion" Smith; Tharp/Sinatra Suite, set to songs sung by Frank Sinatra; Elo/TBA, music by Philip Glass [West Coast premiere]; Millepied/From Here on Out [2007], music by Nico Muhuly

Tickets, priced at $90/$76/$52/$34, are available through the Cal Performances box office at Zellerbach Hall, at 642-9988 to charge by phone, at www.calperformances.net, and at the door.

Behind the scenes

Conversation: Edward Villella and Robert Cole
Friday, Oct 26, 6 p.m., The Faculty Club
Cal Performances Director Robert Cole will interview Miami City Ballet Artistic Director Edward Villella

Lecture: American Choreographer Twyla Tharp, Marcia Siegel
Friday, Nov. 9, 4 to 5:30 p.m., Great Hall, The Faculty Club

Tharp's Impact on American Dance/Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Lecture Series

Whirlwind Out of California: Twyla Tharp's Early Years, Elizabeth Zimmer
Thursday, Oct. 4, 2 to 4 p.m.

Twyla Tharp's Images of Romance, Janice Ross
Thursday, Oct. 25, 2 to 4 p.m.

Baker's Dozen and the Sinatra Series, Marcia Siegel
Thursday, Nov. 8, 1:45 to 4 p.m.

Pre-registration is required and includes discounted performance tickets. All sessions take place at Alumni House. To register, visit www.olli.berkeley.edu or call 642-9934.

Twyla Tharp's Choreography in Film

All films will be screened at 7 p.m. in Wheeler Auditorium; $3 admission.

Hair, Tuesday, Oct. 9
Ragtime, Tuesday, Oct. 16
Amadeus: The Director's Cut, Tuesday, Oct. 23
White Nights, Tuesday, Nov. 13

Berkeley Dance Project 2008/Torelli (1976)

April 18, 19, 25, 8 p.m. April 20, 27, 2 p.m. Zellerbach Playhouse

Produced by the Department of Theater, Dance, and Peformance Studies, Twyla Tharp's postmodern work, Torelli, is reconstructed with Berkeley dance students in a program directed by Lisa Wymore and Shannon Jackson. For information, visit theater.berkeley.edu.

"These are some of the most successful pieces in modern-dance history," says Cole. "People who love dance and people who don't know anything about it" find Tharp's work "intriguing, because they can see that it's incredibly difficult and athletic." Tharp instructs her dancers to be relaxed and loose-limbed while performing movements at very fast speeds. "The combination is daunting," explains Cole. "You have a specific technique that's only hers, and then you have the speed at which you have to execute it."

Tharp's work is "original, physical, and contemporary," says dance critic Marcia Siegel, who recently published Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance (2007), an in-depth examination of the choreographer's oeuvre and dancers. Siegel clarifies that by "contemporary" she means Tharp is "with the times. She's not wedded to any sort of style or vocabulary."

With Deuce Coupe Tharp loudly proclaimed that the boundaries between ballet and modern dance are artificial, says Siegel. Although such melding of styles isn't radical today, when Robert Joffrey invited Tharp to choreograph a piece for his company, dancers "rebelled and didn't want to be in it because they were tied to classical ballet," recalls Henry Berg, who danced in Deuce Coupe when it debuted in 1973.

Two years earlier, Tharp had upset the dance world when she set Eight Jelly Rolls to the music of early-20th-century jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. "That was a real shocker," says Siegel, because most modern dancers through the 1920s, '30s, and '40s - though "determined to be modern" - did not use jazz. "The modern dancers considered their work 'high art,' so they would only use classic music or sometimes folk."

Avant-garde dancers "weren't supposed to use popular music. If anything, they would have music written for them, or they employed it in a way that was completely incidental," says Siegel. Dancers such as Tricia Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Lucinda Childs "all wanted a bigger audience, but their work was not accessible," she explains. Tharp, on the other hand, dared to entertain audiences with Eight Jelly Rolls, a piece that used jazz and big, explosive dance movements.

Siegel, a longtime dance critic with the Hudson Review and reviewer for the Boston Phoenix since 1996, has followed Tharp's work since 1967. "Good choreography is very rare when you get right down to it," she says, and Tharp "was extraordinary and distinctive from the word go. I have never felt there was anyone comparable to her in terms of talent and originality."

After Deuce Coupe, Tharp went on to choreograph works to the music of such disparate composers and performers as Willie "The Lion" Smith (Baker's Dozen, 1979), David Byrne (The Catherine Wheel, 1981), Frank Sinatra (Nine Sinatra Songs, 1982), and Philip Glass (In the Upper Room, 1986). She also choreographed dance in three films by Milos Forman: Hair (1970), Ragtime (1981), and Amadeus (1984), as well as in White Nights (1985), directed by Taylor Hackford and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. In recent years Tharp has turned to Broadway, choreographing dance musicals, including Movin' Out (set to the music of Billy Joel) and The Times They Are a-Changin', featuring the lyrics and music of Bob Dylan.

Tharp, now 66, won't be in attendance at the upcoming Berkeley performances. She's hard at work on a commissioned piece for the Miami City Ballet, set to a new score by Elvis Costello. "She's always looking forward to the future," says Cole, who first presented the Twyla Tharp Dance Company in the late '70s. "She doesn't look back. That's our job."

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