American Ballet Theatre: Transforming Music Into Steps

Classic Arts Features   American Ballet Theatre: Transforming Music Into Steps
On June 3rd, the curtain rises on Twyla Tharp's latest creation for ABT, to the music of Danny Elfman.

As of March, the Hollywood composer Danny Elfman - perhaps best known for his spacey, glassy music for Tim Burton's fantasy Edward Scissorhands - still didn't know what to call his new 45-minute score for Twyla Tharp and American Ballet Theatre. Usually, naming his projects is somebody else's problem, most likely a producer's. (Two of the small-screen winners were The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.) "For now, I'm calling this one Ballet Uno," he said on a visit to New York to watch rehearsals in the company's studios.

On June 3rd, the curtain rises on Tharp's latest creation for ABT, to Elfman's music. And no matter what title they decide on, the composer is predicting that audiences will find his contribution odd. "My influences are a bizarre mishmash," he says. "I always have a battle going on between two composers who live in my head and don't like each other. One attempts to be serious or occasionally sublime, the other just likes to have fun. When Twyla and I first got together, she played me rags, and I thought, 'Let's do a rag suite.' But I've also been pouring in bits of Americana and jazz and Russian music, from different spigots. I thought some parts would die so that others might live. Twyla's challenge was to find a way to make them live together. In any case, it's all got plenty of energy. And there can't be too much energy for Twyla."

Don't be surprised if you hear hints of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps. "That piece is like Scripture to me, the word of God laid down on the tablets, the stones that came down from the hill." Listen, too, for Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. "Romeo and Juliet has everything: action, romance, whimsy, humor‹and it's all visual. Close your eyes and you'll see images and follow a story. There's no way not to, even if it's not the right story."

The new ballet for Tharp is non-narrative, but viewers may well invent story lines of their own. Heard in rehearsal, with synthesized sound, Elfman's musical blueprint sounded wildly eclectic yet organic. Somehow, the transitions from block to block of disparate material felt as seamless as the metamorphosis of human into a cyborg by the magic of CGI. "I think I belong to the first generation of ADD composers," Elfman says. "I have a short attention span! But that's something I'm trying to embrace rather than reject."

What makes a piece of music right for dancing? In the 1800s, Le Corsaire and Napoli were stitched together from tuneful oddments by many hands. These days, anything is fair game. There are ballets to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, to Mahler's cosmic Symphony No. 3, to total silence, to songs of Jimi Hendrix. But historically, many of the greatest classics were created to scores written to order for the occasion: Giselle and Swan Lake, for starters, not to mention those Elfman touchstones Le Sacre du Printemps and Romeo and Juliet.

In the 1940s, ABT commissioned a pair of scores with very long legs: Leonard Bernstein's Fancy Free, for Jerome Robbins, and Morton Gould's Fall River Legend, for Agnes de Mille. Lately, under the directorship of Kevin McKenzie, the company has once again shown an inclination to take the plunge‹with caution.

"It's a big commitment," McKenzie says. "You're dealing with an unknown that adds another level of risk. That's what you want! But there's always the pragmatic issue. Do we have the time and resources? In particular, will there be enough orchestra rehearsal time? If a ballet is immensely complex, we can do another studio rehearsal, but onstage there are only so many hours in the day. We can't make more. That can be very nerve-wracking."

Last October, ABT unveiled Benjamin Millepied's half-hour From Here on Out, danced to new music by the rising star Nico Muhly, who had worked with the choreographer before. "I tried very hard not to visualize," says Muhly. "I tried to be suggestively visual without being explicit. In the orchestra, I always had different groups of instruments moving at different speeds, converging, and diverging. It's like when you look at the sky, and the clouds are moving at one speed, the birds at another, a plane at another: nested speeds. I hoped that would be evocative for Ben." From out front, Millepied seemed to be pouring on extra layers of motion, placing lifts and jumps and spins not at the crest of musical phrases but at stolen moments in between. "I hoped he would find those interstices," Muhly says. "I didn't want to write music that had an exclusive rhythmic footprint, with no possibility of other rhythms in or over or within or beneath it."

Watching rehearsals, Muhly says, became an obsession. "Watching your music being danced is such a pleasure. When I'm writing, I sit at a desk in a frozen position. To see people moving around to something that came from me is a very new experience."

A decade ago, the composer Elliot Goldenthal had a comparable epiphany at the creation of Lar Lubovitch's three-act Othello. Together, the two men had devised a first act built up of short "numbers" for the ensemble, a second act consisting of a single, symphonic tarantella, and a third act built up of reminiscences of the first two. The objective was a sort of Rashomon effect, in which various characters' versions of the story assumed competing realities.

As opening night approached, Goldenthal felt Othello coming ever more sharply into focus. But the transition from studio to stage brought its surprises. "Once the proscenium frames something, you see it more objectively," Goldenthal says. "But in rehearsals, with two dozen hard-working dancers in their leotards and the molecules of perspiration in the air, there's an irretrievable visceral impact. Onstage, with the trappings of the theater, the piece transforms into something else‹equally compelling but quite, quite different."

For Elfman, whose obligations in California prevent him from following Ballet Uno as it takes shape day to day, the shock of the premiere may well be more dramatic‹all the more since he is the very greenest of balletomanes. Though he has cherished every note of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet for three decades, he never saw it danced until last year. But the glimpse into Tharp's workshop already has him thinking of a possible Ballet Due. From there on, who knows?

Matthew Gurewitsch is a writer based in Manhattan.

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