Beyond Ballroom: Twyla Tharp’s American Classicism

When Twyla Tharp revived two dances from the 1980s at City Center this fall, I dutifully attended, thinking to refresh my memory of her high-powered masterwork “In the Upper Room,” then relax into “Nine Sinatra Songs,” her suite of smooth ballroom numbers.

Instead I emerged with my opinions scrambled. I’d been awed, as expected, by “In the Upper Room(1986), an exuberant machine of a ballet featuring waves of dancers coming forward through fog, dressed in Norma Kamali’s variations on striped prison suits. But it was “Nine Sinatra Songs” (1982)that thrilled me.

It wasn’t the nod-along-to-Sinatra-chestnuts piece I’d remembered. It was more like a moment-by-moment fusion of dance idioms — from the pedestrian to the balletic — matched excitingly with Sinatra’s suave pop jazz.

Forty years after its debut, “Nine Sinatra Songs”struck me as something rare: an American masterpiece.

THARP CAME OUT of 1960s postmodern dance, also known as the Judson Church movement, after a favored performance space. The idea was to dismantle the hocus-pocus of concert dance, and in her early work, Tharp came on stern like her Judson elders. No music. No schmaltz or “magic” on the stage. Instead, she used the movement’s impersonal tools — charts and graphs. “The Fugue” (1970),in which her all-female company stamped and whirled in some arcane but riveting design, seemed to embody these anti-theatrical mathematics.

But then, almost alone among her experimental peers, she veered off from the plain, punitive and meticulous. Starting with her charmingly flippant “Eight Jelly Rolls” in 1971, she reintroduced musicto postmodern dance. Joyous music: 1920s ragtime jazz, by Jelly Roll Morton. She gave her dancers previously shunned theatrical trappings, like costumes — for “Jelly Rolls,” Kermit Love’s witty backless tuxedos — and smart haircuts. Tharp, at that time a fascinatingly manic presence onstage, got a Vidal Sassoon precision mop.

In 1973, a time when modern dance and ballet occupied two different planets, she even merged her company, briefly, with the Joffrey Ballet, for “Deuce Coupe,” the crossover piece set to Beach Boys music that Robert Joffrey had daringly asked her to create.(I can still feel the shock of watching, from high up in City Center, her orange-clad company spilling out full speed from upstage right into a crowd of ballet dancers.) Soon after, she found herself at ballet’s very center. Mikhail Baryshnikov, the megastar Russian dancer who had defected and joined American Ballet Theater, asked to work with her. In 1976 she made three exploratorily intertwined duets for him and herself (and Ballet Theater), using the essence of American pop: Sinatra songs.

Cassandra Trenary and Benjamin Freemantle danced to “One for My Baby,” in “Nine Sinatra Songs” at New York City Center in October.Credit…Erin Baiano for The New York Times
Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer in “Softly, as I Leave You,” the opener of “Nine Sinatra Songs” at City Center.Credit…Erin Baiano for The New York Times

In her 1992 memoir, “Push Comes to Shove,” Tharp explains her radical shift from Puritan to eclectic, mentioning her contrarian temperament, her childhood training in multiple virtuosities (classical piano, ballet, baton twirling), her then husband’s old jazz records, her insistence on dancers making a living, and (reading between the lines) her implacable drive toward fame. It was also during this period, in the late ’70s, that she started work on Milos Forman’s movie “Ragtime”(1981), studying clips of Vernon and Irene Castle, the beloved early 20th-century dancing couple.

In 1982, “Nine Sinatra Songsgathered all of these influences into one work, made for seven couples from her own scrappy company, this time glamorously made-up — and gowned and tuxedoed by none other than Oscar de la Renta.

SO HOW CAN a bunch of male-female duets, in ballroom drag, set to mostly cheesy Sinatra songs, watched over by a spinning disco ball, be anything but a giant cliché? The answer lies in the actual dances. Before the City Center revival, I had drifted away from seeing Tharp’s work, vaguely assuming that her choreographic reputation stemmed from a dose of right-place-right-time luck; that she’d instinctively ridden the wave of ’70s hippie culture crashing into ’80s urbanity. Now I was brought face to face with her sheer composing skill. And with the counterculture values that she’s steered by from the beginning.

What was palpable this time was the women’s importance to the partnerships — so fresh when new, and suddenly fresh again. In the first song, “Softly, as I Leave You,” I was struck by how the woman’s solo entrance from upstage right sets the tone for the whole. Her partner follows her, yet she remains in front, initiating their joint impulse to let go into dancing.

The dancers, Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer, breathed as one throughout their smooth-flowing number, as did the other “Sinatra Songs” couples. (For this City Center pickup company, all of the dancers were borrowed; Harris and Gilmer from the Alvin Ailey company.) Yet each dance is different, as it mirrors its song’s distinctive marriage of Sinatra’s vocals with orchestral setting.

The second song, “Strangers in the Night,” has a tango underpinning: It’s flavored with abrupt tango swivels and tango chassés (light gallops). The fifth song, “Something Stupid,” has a hiccuppy feel, with the man doing little hops in the air, seemingly out of embarrassment. But the message to the audience is always the same: The man and woman dance and breathe together, nobody dominating. The piece at City Center even seemed to offer a light corrective to the sometimes strained gestures toward gender equality seen on today’s ballet stage — male-male duets, female-female duets, women lifting men. For Tharp, male-female equality was — and remains — the core impulse.

Sure, there are lifts in “Nine Sinatra Songs,”a lot of them — and it’s usually the man bearing the woman’s weight, even hoisting her on high, ballet style. But such hoisting constitutes only a fraction of this work’s profusely varied lifts. Some have the woman’s body winding briefly around the man’s, or over it, or under it. Some have the woman being caught in a horizontal leap toward the man. Some are half-lifts, as in “All the Way,” when the woman pops up vertically in mid-locomotion by pushing down against the man’s hands. Tharp’s lifts are musical, and at the same time surprising — more like weight-exchanging experiments than old-fashioned ballroom tricks, or new-fashioned gender deconstructions.

“Nine Sinatra Songs”even provides a kind of rebuttal before the fact to another trend that’s taken hold in the years since its premiere: several generations of male choreographers (Peter Martins, Christopher Wheeldon, Mauro Bigonzetti, to name a few) passing off macho-light partnering as poignant content. The women often go limp and get pretzeled around their partners. Or they are compulsively lifted to the rise of a melody, then put down on the diminuendo. These lifts stop the dance phrase, even if only briefly, leading to a choppy texture. By contrast, Tharp’s lifts in “Sinatra Songs” speed up the momentum rather than clotting it. Even with lifts tucked inside, her movement phrases keep spooling out, as if a special motor were powering them. By the end of the dance, the stage has acquired multiple airy trails — like the visual echoes left by virtuosic Hula-Hoopers.

Tharp has said that early in her career she planted an imaginary version of George Balanchine in the corner of her rehearsal studio. In Balanchine’s work, the woman may be the one lifted, but she’s always an instigator too, a partner in an ever-oscillating weight exchange. The partners in Tharp’s “Sinatra Songs” model this same dynamic, but they also interact more on the human level. They play more with vernacular qualities — with nonchalance (“One for My Baby”); awkwardness (“Somethin’ Stupid”); giddiness (“Forget Domani”). And in the last pas de deux, “That’s Life,” with deep fatigue edging (maybe) toward hope.

“That’s Life” has been criticized in the past for partnering in which the woman was handled roughly. But at City Center, a new male-female balance has been struck, with New York City Ballet’s Daniel Ulbricht seeming more noble than menacing in his Sinatra-esque indifference; and Jeanette Delgado, a former Miami City Ballet principal, more vibrant, as she gives in to his mock yanking her up to Sinatra’s spat-out declaration that “You pick yourself up and get back in the race. …”

“That’s Life”: Daniel Ulbricht and Jeanette Delgado.Credit…Erin Baiano for The New York Times
“All the Way”: Lloyd Knight and Kaitlyn Gilliland.Credit…Erin Baiano for The New York Times

IN THE 20TH CENTURY when dance became an American art form, a host of bold new works emerged. And sometimes, a choreographer managed to tap into her own deepest experience — through the music, the steps and the theatrical trappings — to capture something elemental in the American DNA. Watching “Nine Sinatra Songs,” I started to imagine a neon billboard sticking up into a desert sky; to see the spotlighted satin lapels of casino headliners.

In short, this dance began to conjure up a landscape beyond the theater — something that, for me, happens in a few of the greatest American dances: Martha Graham’s “Dark Meadow” (1946),Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957),Donald McKayle’s “Rainbow Round My Shoulder” (1959),Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”(1960), Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering” (1969), Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade” (1975). Tharp’s 1982 “Nine Sinatra Songs” belongs in this company.As I watched it, the Tharp family of six materialized somewhere offstage, migrating in their car from Indiana Quaker farm country to the California desert town of Rialto in 1949, when Twyla was 9. They’d bought a drive-in movie theater in the little desert town.

What were they hoping to find with this radical move across the country? A Hollywood-style happy ending? A renewed family romance?

Romance is the theme of “Nine Sinatra Songs,” but romance à deux. And yet Tharp’s ordering of these Sinatra duets doesn’t really chart the progression of a typical relationship, no matter what she’s said in interviews. The first song, “Softly, as I Leave You,” isn’t about the beginning of a romance, but its end. The man is leaving the woman. It’s the second number, “Strangers in the Night,” that depicts a couple falling in love. Is this what the work is saying, that American romances die before they get underway? Tharp has also set the climax — or rather two climaxes, one in the middle, one at the end — to Sinatra singing “My Way.” Yet “My Way” isn’t even a love song. It’s a cry of wounded pride, from someone who’s been left alone and is trying to make pride compensate for loss.

Twice in this dance, we see multiple men pinwheeling multiple women on high, almost like multiple bitter triumphs, as Sinatra sings out to us that “his way” is worth “all the blows.”

Poor broken America. As I watched “Sinatra Songs”in the nail-biting moment before the 2022 midterm elections, I saw it evoking elusive strains in our national psyche: the goofiness, the fleeting sweetness, and finally the despair and incipient violence of Americans isolated out there, hoping to find a connection with somebody — anybody — but failing. There’s an utter seriousness inside this dance as its couples react to the blustery, intimate, warm, and yes, somehow menacing singer and his music.

Dancing with another person is hard. It asks you to sense your partner’s split-second impulses, and react in tandem. It asks for compromise — and flexibility. “Nine Sinatra Songs,” especially nowadays, seems to celebrate the glorious hope of connecting, and its impossibility.

Elizabeth Kendall is a dance historian, whose books include “Where She Danced” and “Balanchine and the Lost Muse.” Her next one is about George Balanchine’s transformation into an American choreographer.

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