Twyla Tharp's groundbreaking Push Comes To Shove stunned the American Ballet Theatre audience at its 1976 premiere, providing a shock value we can no longer imagine. Nearly 33 years later, we perceive it through a prism of works that the piece influenced, and our acceptance of a much wider spectrum of artistic possibilities.
Tharp was in a unique position as a choreographer, with a foundation of classical ballet as well as the opportunity to study with modern dance masters Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham. Though this piece can't really be called the first crossover ballet, Tharp integrated the two disciplines with a quirky innovative style and sense of humor that no one had envisioned before.
Pennsylvania Ballet's Artistic Director Roy Kaiser never felt that Push really told a story, but Tharp gives us every chance to let us interpret our own. In the opening, set to an orchestration of Joseph Lamb's ebullient "Bohemia Rag," the male star in copper shirt, shiny pants and derby hat almost seems like a vaudevillian hoofer warming up with turns, struts and whirling arms, then seemingly intimidated by the grace of the two women who appear. The mood changes to Haydn's elegant Symphony No. 82, with the appearance of sixteen female dancers whose upper limbs seem to have appropriated the angular, mechanical motions of the male.
Derby hats become major participants, and Tharp found humor in a section where partners get lost in the large ensemble. The male lead grabs the female lead like an apache dancer, attempting unsuccessful lifts, eventually just shaking and then clumsily flipping her. He mugs to the audience, looks at the floor in mock frustration, gives a gesture as if not willing to compete. Is Tharp showing us a rehearsal of backstage antics? Is the lead character bringing more flexibility to the other dancers, or were they making him more conventional? Most likely, Tharp intends the work's entertainment value to be more significant than any narrative.
The wildly famous Mikhail Baryshnikov was the inspiration for the work, at a time when he was eager to break away from his signature classical roles. "He was widely regarded as the premier classical dancer of our generation," said Kaiser, "who had made a huge splash a year after his defection. He was as interested in working with her as she with him, and he proved himself not just a wonderful classical dancer, but a wonderful dancer, period. Twyla humanized him in a way, taking him off that pedestal, capitalizing on his sense of humor, and undertaking the whole project with integrity, experimentation, and real risk."
Elaine Kudo was in her first year with the American Ballet Theater when Tharp created Push, first appearing in the corps and understudying the lead, then making it a signature piece.
Kudo has been teaching Push to Pennsylvania Ballet the last five weeks, returning after having coached Tharp's In The Upper Room in April 2007. She's an essential link to the source, and fondly remembers being part of the work's creation.
"Many in American Ballet Theatre were so skeptical that they asked not to be in it, and to stay in their comfort zone," recalls Kudo. "Gelsey Kirkland was supposed to do the lead role, though Marianna Tcherkassy eventually danced it. Steps that were being used in tandem were so odd for the time, so very different from any motions used in classical ballet, that dancers were saying, "She wants me to do what?!" For instance, to rotate one way, change your weight and go the other way is not a ballet dancer's tendency.
"It wasn't always easy to work with Misha and, since he was the boss, I wasn't that comfortable making suggestions. He had seen Twyla's work with the Joffrey Ballet, and he soon became a master of these turns and jumps which we thought quirky and weird. But Twyla always takes risks, which thread all through her choreography. For instance, she chose Joseph Lamb and Joseph Haydn because she wanted to show the similarities in the use of syncopation.
"I think Push is Twyla's spoof on classical dancing, the use of the corps with the soloists in front and the imperial changing of patterns, like in Swan Lake. In the third movement, she goes a little scatty, playing on those themes. We had no idea if it was going to work, or that it was such a breakthrough piece. But I have never again experienced that kind of reaction and success, with the audience standing and screaming. Then we knew, and even the doubters began to say they should have been more open-minded."
Kaiser has been waiting for the right moment to present the Company premiere of this landmark piece, and the troupe's 45th Anniversary Season was the ideal opportunity. As usual, he's designed a program to showcase the Company's remarkable diversity.
Any evening of contemporary dance should include a piece by legendary choreographer George Balanchine. The choice is Ballo della Regina, a classical work to ballet music originally cut from Verdi's Don Carlos, which the Company last performed in 2004. That piece has been coached by r_p_titeurs close to the source‹Sandra Jennings, once a ballet mistress for the Company and presently a stager for the Balanchine Trust, and Merrill Ashley, the ballerina who inspired Balanchine's creation in 1978.
Choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, former Artistic Director of the Italian company Alterballeto, brings the Company premiere of his ensemble piece Kazimir's Colours, first presented by the Stuttgart Ballet. Kaiser didn't see that performance, but was attracted by two of the three works Bigonzetti created for the New York City Ballet.
"Mauro is a talented choreographer, classical but kinetic, which means that his ballets are not just a series of steps, but achieve their effect because of the way they're put together. When I saw his work, I realized our Company would handle his style very well, and I hope someday for him to create a new work for us. So this is a good opportunity to get to know him and vice versa.
"All three works demand superb classical training," said Kaiser, "and we're lucky that our dancers who are willing to take on such different challenges at the same time. I look for dancers who can do that, and now the core of the Company is used to working in this fashion. We take it for granted, and are glad that our audience has embraced it."
Tom Di Nardo is arts writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, and a contributor to Playbill and Symphony Magazine.