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Talking New Works with Twyla Tharp

Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Price Suddarth with choreographer Twyla Tharp during a rehearsal of Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station”
Photo © Lindsay Thomas.

If you’re a fan of Twyla Tharp, get ready. Not only does Pacific Northwest Ballet kick off their new season this Friday, September 27, with AIR TWYLA, an all-Tharp program, but Tharp has choreographed a new work for them in her role as PNB’s first-ever Artist-In-Residence. Waiting at the Station is a brand-new work by Tharp and is also a collaboration with revered New Orleans jazz musician and composer, Allen Toussaint (who will be here in performance for select shows). SeattleDances was lucky enough to preview the new piece and sit down with the woman herself—we got a history lesson, a walk through Waiting At the Station, and a small window into the process of creating with the dancers of PNB.

To anyone interested in dance, Tharp needs no introduction. As a choreographer, she has been a force in the dance world since the 1960s, and has worked ceaselessly for decades. Early on, her choreography was credited with breaking boundaries between dance forms, blending the contemporary and the vernacular with all the benefits of classical technique, and incorporating popular forms of music into her choreography.

Such history is evident in Waiting at the Station: it’s a new piece with new choreography, music, scenery, costumes, but it is rooted in the past. When asked about the collaboration with Toussaint, she remarked, “I’ve been listening to what I call ‘left hand American music’ for a long time, and Toussaint is a fine exemplary of this.” She pulled out her laptop and opened her website, where she has extensive archives of her choreography, including music and video footage. She notes Yancey Dance from 1967 with Jimmy Yancey’s bluesy boogie-woogie music dating from 1914. She points out more of her early work that uses bluesmen Willie Smith and Albert Ammons. This is the kind of music she often dances to when working alone in the studio, even though it may not be part of the dance that goes up on stage. “It’s very similar to the Toussaint,” she said, “and you see the movement is very similar” to her new choreography. The continuity from then to now is clear: the upper body has that same easy quality that marks Waiting at the Station (and much of Tharp’s choreographic aesthetic), but there’s just so much—“technique!” Tharp interjects. And that is just the word to capture the precision and complexity of her movement.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers with choreographer Twyla Tharp during a rehearsal of Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station.”
Photo © Lindsay Thomas.

This technique is the foundation underlying the overall atmosphere in Waiting at the Station. The dancers exude ease throughout much of it, allowing their individual personalities and characters to shine through. There are, of course, moments of tension and struggle, for this is a theatrical piece with a strong narrative thrust. “It’s the story of this man’s trying to leave town. He’s trying to get on a train, he’s waiting at the station,” says Tharp. This central character’s journey is the core of the piece, but it exists within a cast of soloist and ensemble roles that fill up the stage and give the impression of a bustling, tight-knit community all centered around the space of the station. Couples dance and gossip, and pedestrian interactions pepper the fast-paced, technical dancing, lending an air of reality to the piece’s atmosphere. There’s even a Mardi Gras section with what promise to be—judging from glimpses at the in-studio run-through—fabulous costumes from Santo Loquasto, who also designs the scenery.

When asked about her experiences coming back to PNB after time with the company in 2008, Tharp said immediately, “The thing that is valuable for me is continuity.” Dancers James Moore and Carrie Imler, for example, both worked with Tharp when she set Afternoon Ball and Opus 111 on the company in 2008. For Waiting at the Station, Tharp says they “are working…in a very special kind of role. And that’s only possible for me to develop for them because I’ve worked with them before.” And what about the PNB dancers she is working with for the first time? “When I came in February they were rehearsing other stuff, including In The Upper Room,” says Tharp, “so I could only get the dancers who weren’t working otherwise.” This turned out to be an opportunity for corps de ballet members Andrew Bartee and Jahna Frantziskonis, and Tharp says she “built a lot of material on them,” even if it was not her original intent to cast them. “I explained to them, you’re not going to be doing this, but you’re having the opportunity to work now. And they love to work, so I ended up feeling like, well, why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to do it.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal with choreographer Twyla Tharp during a rehearsal of Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station.”
Photo © Lindsay Thomas.

After two weeks of work in February, Tharp returned to Seattle for her residency this September, when it took seven days to set Waiting at the Station. With its completion, the company boasts a new world premiere to add to the full evening of works by this American dance luminary—an excellent way for PNB to kick off its 41st season.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2013-2014 season opens with AIR TWYLA, premiering this Friday, September 27, and running through Sunday, October 6. AIR TWYLA will also feature Brief Fling (1990) and Nine Sinatra Songs (1982). Tickets are available here. For more information on Twyla Tharp and her long history of work, visit her website.