The pas de deux Some Assembly Required started from the simplest of beginnings: a casual conversation during a flight about a great piece of music, which ended with a choreographer asking two dancers if they might have energy to help him work out some movement during their breaks while on tour.
So began the process to create what would become one of late dancer-choreographer Clark Tippet’s most popular works on his frequent creative muses, former ABT Principal Dancer Amanda McKerrow and her husband, former ABT Soloist John Gardner.
During American Ballet Theatre’s Fall season at the David H. Koch Theater, audiences will see two other couples—Sarah Lane with Cory Stearns and Skylar Brandt with Roman Zhurbin—step into the roles that McKerrow and Gardner created in 1989. The pas de deux has been in and out of ABT’s repertory since it first premiered.
ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, who was a Principal Dancer with the Company at the time and good friends with Tippet, said he still remembers his reaction when he first saw the pas de deux.
“I loved the tone, the musical choice, the partnering, the movement, the way he completely captured Amanda and John and their relationship,” McKenzie recalled. “You could see that he had created it on two people whom he knew very well, and he was pushing them in a way that they didn’t realize they were being pushed.”
McKenzie continued, invoking the name of one of ABT’s most well-known dancemakers, Antony Tudor.
“I remember thinking ‘how Tudor-esque of him,’” McKenzie said. “In the moment of creation, he used the actual things that were happening between the couple as inspiration.”
Clark Tippet (1954–92) was a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theatre. He began developing as a choreographer during one of ABT’s choreographic workshops where his first work, Enough Said, earned critical acclaim. Tippet went on to create several more celebrated works for ABT, including Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. and Some Assembly Required.
Tippet died in 1992 from AIDS. Those who knew him speak as much about his choreographic talent as they do his intelligence and wry sense of humor.
“In addition to being a beautiful dancer, he also was a tremendous partner. He had an incredible ability to work with another body in space,” McKenzie said. “Some of the partnering manipulations are just completely unexpected and unusual and yet, once you’ve seen them once, you say ‘Oh, of course.’”
“He was very, very intelligent, and he knew you. He could see through you, but as a choreographer, he never went to a cruel place,” Gardner said. “Clark instinctively knew which buttons to push.”
Of course, when Tippet, McKerrow and Gardner began working, no one was thinking about lasting legacy, Tudor-esque choreography or even about what Tippet saw in McKerrow and Gardner’s relationship.
“The initial thought was about the music. Clark took everything from the music. That’s how he choreographed,” said Gardner of Tippet’s choice of William Bolcom’s Second Sonata for Violin and Piano. “When he had us in the studio, other things came into play.”
McKerrow and Gardner said Tippet’s insight into the nuances of their relationship surprised them. “We had been married for four years at that point, and I think that he really played off our relationship. He watched the dynamic between us,” Gardner remembered.
McKerrow added, “He was seeing things I didn’t realize he was seeing. I almost felt uncomfortable, but John and I have been through a lot, and that was what we were going through at that time.”
McKerrow and Gardner explained that while Tippet had a clear idea of what he wanted to create, the rehearsal process was filled with challenges.
“It was the year that we did Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new Swan Lake. I remember Misha wasn’t sure we would have time to work with Clark because we were both really, really busy,” McKerrow said. “But John and I wanted to do the piece with Clark so badly that we said we would make time.”
“It took extra hours. It wasn’t on the rehearsal schedule. We had to find studio space in the different cities we went to on tour. There were a lot of taxi rides.” McKerrow said those taxi rides actually gave the trio a chance to talk about the work they were creating together.
“Looking back, those talks were just magical,” she said. “It was invaluable time that you don’t always get with a choreographer.”
Illnesses also presented an unexpected challenge. McKerrow and Tippet both came down with the flu. But Tippet couldn’t shake the bug and was admitted to a hospital in San Diego. The Company flew back to the East Coast without him. By the time Some Assembly Required premiered in Washington, D.C., Tippet had been officially diagnosed with AIDS.
Once his health had improved enough to return to New York, Tippet did some additional editing and tweaking to the piece. But the pas de deux was already deemed a masterwork.
“This study of a relationship had a power dynamic in it, and it had confusion and love and impatience and immaturity. It was just so textured and sophisticated,” McKenzie said. “I remember thinking ‘Wow, Clark, you made that.’”
And, McKenzie added, Tippet knew his creation worked. “I think he was very proud of it. I know he was very proud of Some Assembly,” McKenzie said. “Even now, 30 years after its premiere, the choreography still stands up.”
“The genius in that pas de deux comes in the moments of stillness, those moments where we’re just facing each other,” Gardner said. “He really understood us and understood the power of those moments.”
For this latest revival, McKerrow and Gardner spent time in the studio with the new casts tapped to step into their shoes. Both couples have learned the steps and the history behind the pas de deux.
“The next step will be for them to make it their own,” McKenzie said. “In the end, the thing that is interesting about theater is, as the audience, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but you’re invested enough in the characters that you care that it works out for them. And that’s what is special about this piece.”