The roads we travel take us where we’re meant to go…if we catch the signs. Composer Danny Elfman and choreographer Twyla Tharp clearly pay attention. This year, they seized an exciting opportunity when their roads met, merged, and criss-crossed in a collaboration that brought each artist to new levels.
Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue, scored by Elfman, offers six performances beginning August 6th. This American Ballet Theatre production at the Orange County Performing Arts Center brings its dancers and viewers to new levels. The 45-minute work, with a cast of 22, had its premiere in June at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and left the town abuzz with excitement. The back-story of how Elfman and Tharp came to combine their creative energies is a good reminder to keep our senses open.
Danny Elfman is known for his variety of musical accomplishments, including two decades as front-man in the rock band, Oingo Boingo, writing television themes such as The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives (winning an Emmy for the latter), and scoring a number of films including Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and a long list of titles that stretches up to this year’s Hellboy II. He created a symphonic work for the American Composers Orchestra. But when his agent suggested he write an opera, Elfman declined; he wanted to write a ballet.
“All the music that had inspired me when I was young – Stravinsky, Prokofiev – was ballet,” he said before an orchestra rehearsal in May. “So my agent approached ABT and I went to a performance where I saw Twyla’s In the Upper Room. I said I’d like to work with her and they said, ‘Oh, that might be difficult.’ Then three days later, they phoned to say she wanted to meet me. We hung out for an afternoon and said let’s do it. We got to know each other, talking about narrative versus non-narrative, the pros and cons of each.”
“I’m not a movie-goer,” Tharp said, “so I hadn’t seen his work there. He has a ton of energy. He has a lot of range, he’s very versatile – and he had his own rock ‘n’ roll band! Who could not love that? Also, he knows his film history and he knows his 20th century classical music history – the Russians in particular.”
Elfman says his connection to ballet was through its music. “It was ‘Rite of Spring’ that turned my world upside down when I was 17. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet contains everything one needs to learn film scoring. It has mirth, excitement, fighting, romance, whimsy. Give me Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich any day. It gets my blood going.
“I figured, ‘I’ll start and then go play music with Twyla and see what she responds to.’ I wrote about 14 pieces at the beginning. Her response was more complex than what I imagined. It wasn’t, ‘This I could dance to, and this I can’t.’ It was, ‘Oh wow, I can take these pieces and put them together. This next to this would be great. This could be a pas de deux’ – stuff I never would have imagined.
“The first time we hung out, listening to a lot of records, she happened to be listening to a Scott Joplin opera. I thought, ‘I’ve never written a rag. I’m going to write her a rag.’ And I knew I was going to use a lot of percussion. I wanted to end up with five movements. I set myself certain parameters: that every movement would borrow from each other. I tried to create something where, if I had the movements laid out, if they were made of glass and I dropped them, I would take fragments of each of them and mix them up so that each was borrowing bits from the other.”
“Danny had a sense of structure that was symphonic,” Tharp said. “Also, he’s used to action – to seeing and then reinforcing. So he was ideal, from the point of view of supporting action. He was very focused, a delight to work with. He would always take the extra step – sending you three versions instead of just two.”
A self-proclaimed pessimist, Elfman, 55, wasn’t fully confident when he took his pieces to Tharp, 67. “I thought she would pick two or three, but she liked them all,” he said. “So then the challenge was to put them together. There is some gamelan music, a rag that revolves around electronic sounds, lots of drums, all integrated into a very dense framework. Because I was writing for Twyla, I wanted to keep a sense of rhythm and propulsion, and a strong melodic core. I expect to get murdered critically for all of that – but I hope that a sense of fun is there.”
Prior to June’s New York premiere, Elfman found the limited orchestra rehearsal time – restricted by ballet economics – a bit daunting. But watching his music transformed into dance at the Metropolitan Opera House gave great reward. He commends Tharp’s “sense of geometry and symmetry, and shaping dynamics in a way that’s not what one would think in the broader sense – it was so full of surprises. It was very surreal. It was nothing like what I imagined in my mind’s eye – yet I didn’t know what to imagine. I never had a doubt or question about what she was going to do. I just knew that whatever she did, it was going to be wonderful – at least from my perspective. And she didn’t let me down, ever. I saw six out of seven performances in New York and, at the last one, I was still seeing stuff for the first time.”
Tharp said she was able to develop a basic idea of structure from the first musical fragments. “I knew that I was going to have an ensemble – demi-soloists and principals,” she said. While the title Rabbit and Rogue refers to the main principles, its origin suggests more, as described by Ms. Tharp in an e-mail message:
“The title comes from ‘Sam and Mary,’ a solo study of rhythmic evolutions I did some while ago to Brahms songs,” she wrote. “As I worked, I realized that there is a constant struggle going on inside us all between left and right, or Sam and Mary, as I called them then. Equilibrium has never been my forte, and therefore seeking repose for this ever-shifting internal mechanism of left and right has always seemed an enviable goal. I am in awe of that moment when the two sides – left and right, Sam and Mary, fast-fleeing Rabbit and pursuing Rogue – give up the chase and work in tandem to create the effortless suspension in space that is classical perch.”
Twyla Tharp’s loose, spiraling movements may appear casual but are strongly constructed and demanding to perform. Her ideas of classical and ballet may not be one and the same. Some feel her style is beyond definition, as her dancers use ballet technique while gracefully moving around its forms. Tharp says, “Before I ever made work here, I had ideas about ballet tradition. At the ballet classes I took when I first came to New York, I would see great dancers like Cynthia Gregory and Lupe Serrano. I would look at them and study what they could do, and what I couldn’t do. And then I’d think maybe they should try what I could do.” She has been helping dancers embrace her style for over 30 years.
Tharp has been identified as both a modern dance revolutionary and one of ballet’s few great living choreographers – its only female one. With this ballet season offering mostly full-length classical standards, her new work shows ballet as an evolving, contemporary art. This is her forte. Tharp’s Deuce Coupe with the Joffrey Ballet in 1973 is considered her groundbreaking crossover work. In 1976, she created Push Comes to Shove for Mikhail Baryshnikov – one of the great hits of his celebrated career. He commissioned other pieces from Tharp over the years and included her in the company as an artistic associate.
Since then, she has developed and dissolved her own company multiple times, created pieces for ballet companies and ice skaters, worked in theatre, film and television, written books, and choreographed and directed on Broadway. Tharpe’s recent Broadway musical, The Times They Are A-Changin’, set to Bob Dylan’s music, received criticism, as did her earlier Movin’ Out with Billy Joel’s songs.
Tharp’s Nightspot, which premiered in April with the Miami City Ballet, was also not well-received. All this demonstrates that Tharp is an adventurous artist, unafraid to take risks. “Like every child,” she said in May, “I had a fantasy about movements that were easier than earthly movements. It’s that adventure that prompts new attempts – sometimes known as inspiration.”
Rabbit and Rogue is Tharp’s second new work this year, after Nightspot. An as-yet unnamed piece for the Pacific Northwest Ballet will follow in September. This comes after seven years of focus on two Broadway musicals. When asked what inspired her return to working with ballet companies, Tharp replied, “The stars all aligned. We spend periods of time away, learning lessons, and then come back.” Several chance factors led to the production of Rabbit and Rogue, including Danny Elfman’s desire to write a score for ballet.
That Elfman and Tharp hit it off so naturally is delightful, but not all that surprising. They are rebels with a cause to entertain. Both are known for going their own way, pursuing that which moves along less-beaten paths. They quietly shake things up. We can be thankful for artists who guide us and enlighten us to brighter, more colorful roads. It makes us explore, ask questions. And that’s a good thing.
'Rabbit and Rogue' is presented by the Orange County Performing Arts Center from August 6 to August 10, 2008