In the spring of 1973, when Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe made its New York premiere at City Center, graffiti was primarily considered a costly blight on the urban landscape.
The early and mid-1970s might be called the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” era in New York’s history, with the city perennially pressed for funds. Graffiti artists—although they were at the time perceived as more a dangerous scourge than artists—splashed their creativity across subway cars and tunnels, and virtually any blank surface they could find, to the consternation of city officials and the tourism authorities.
But Tharp, a forward-thinking artist who has made a career of blending styles, incorporating both the dizzying energy of urban life and the eccentricities of vernacular movement into her dances, viewed what would later come to be called “street art” in a kindlier light. In a move that was both radical and refreshing at the time, she invited graffiti artists into the realms of “high” culture. The backdrop for Deuce Coupe was created anew every night, live on stage, by graffiti-makers who exclusively plied their craft in less formal environments.
As Deuce Coupe returns to the stage this season, joining In The Upper Room and The Brahms-Haydn Variations on American Ballet Theatre’s all-Tharp evening, the artists involved are challenged not just to recreate a ground-breaking dance that was ecstatically received at the time (in The New Yorker, Arlene Croce, a critic not known for doling out superlatives, called it a “masterpiece,” both “musically sound and poetically convincing”), but also to renew the sense of excitement that the novelty of the ballet’s design conception brought to the work.
Charged with this last, formidable task is Santo Loquasto, who is designing both the set and the costumes for the revival. Loquasto, who would begin a long collaboration with Tharp the year after Deuce Coupe debuted, recalls how the graffiti artists were almost participants in the dance.
“At the beginning there was a pause, they walked upstage, and just started,” he remembers. On three large paper panels that scrolled upward as they worked, the artists did their thing. “And as they began painting, the rollers started rising slowly. They continued until it had filled the space between the floor of the stage and the proscenium.
“All the haze from the spray paint in the air made it look like Les Mis,” Loquasto jokes. “It was very unhealthy of course. But it was wonderful.”
Sara Rudner, a member of Tharp’s company at the time who danced in the premiere and who is staging the new production under Tharp’s supervision, recalls only hazily, as it were, how the presence of the graffiti-makers impacted the dancers.
“The only thing I can tell you is that spray paint is noxious,” she says with a laugh. “There was a bit of coughing on stage. But we were very busy! We were totally concentrated on fulfilling our goals and what we had been building with Twyla. We were part of that design, but everything happened behind us. We were not the audience.”
As Rudner suggests, what Tharp and her collaborators had been building was hardly just novel for its inclusion of a then-unappreciated urban art form in its design. Deuce Coupe was a leap forward in terms of the blending of modern and classical dance—and dancers—that would gain momentum in the following years. (In 1976, Tharp created her first ballet for ABT, the celebrated Push Comes to Shove, beginning a long collaboration with the Company that resulted in more than a dozen new works.)
“That was the first time the Tharp group went into a ballet company,” Rudner recalls. Deuce Coupe was a co-production between the Joffrey Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance, performed by a combination of dancers from both companies. “We had all studied classical European dance, but we had chosen to work in this other art form. To see how Twyla dealt with the incredible diversity of types of dancers was awesome.”
And while Tharp had already begun creating dances to “popular” music, Deuce Coupe, which, as most can guess from the title, employs the songs of The Beach Boys for its score, was audacious for the time in wedding classical choreography to rock music, albeit laid-back, California-dreamy rock.
Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of ABT since 1992, joined the Joffrey Ballet in 1974, shortly after Deuce Coupe’s debut, and danced with the company until 1979. He never appeared in the piece but watched subsequent revivals of it.
“I learned so much from watching it. I was always in the wings when it was happening,” he recalls. When discussing the new production, he says Tharp told him “this wonderful story of these graffiti artists who were ‘wanted,’ and Joffrey arranged for them to come in, and no one knew where they were. They would come in, do their thing and disappear.” (Subsequent versions, called Deuce Coupe II and III would dispense with the live painters.)
“Of course we cannot spray aerosol anymore,” McKenzie notes. “But we are going to evoke that image. We are going to re-create it in a way.”
Loquasto believes fidelity to the spirit of the original, including to the design elements, is essential in retaining the impact Deuce Coupe had for audiences when it was first staged.
“This isn’t a reinventing of it visually,” he says. “Only just technically. This is really a kind of re-creation. I will clean it up a bit, but it should feel the way it felt then: the colors, the way it moves. That’s what you want. It’s pretty simple and clean. I just want to make it move nicely and look kind of fresh.”
And so, while live graffiti artists—and even replicas of the designs they created at the time, which, as art, cannot be copied—are impossible, Loquasto is employing a graffiti artist in the union to help with the set designs, and is using the same essential costume elements, including Hawaiian-print shirts for the men, in order to help recapture the mood of the dance.
That mood, even in 1973, had a hint of nostalgia about it: the heyday of The Beach Boys was, after all, the prior decade. But both Rudner and McKenzie believe Deuce Coupe will feel like much more than an ode to a bygone era of youthful romance, exuberance and expression.
Says Rudner, “This is not being performed as a piece of nostalgia. It’s a piece of current stimulation for brilliant performers. That’s not nostalgia. You could say doing Don Giovanni is a work of nostalgia.
“Certainly it was of its time. But its time is coming back. In many ways it never went away. This is New York City. There is visual creativity all over the place, done by unknown artists and small galleries. Yes, Deuce Coupe is about what the creative energy was at that time. But that energy still exists.”
McKenzie concurs, believing that Deuce Coupe retains its importance as a landmark dance, and as he puts it, “a great portrait of an artist,” but also as a work that, like all great art, can be an immediate snapshot of a fertile time, as well as an illustration of the timelessness of art and its ability to inspire new generations.
“I think it’s more than nostalgia,” he says. “It’s an evocation of the free spirit, and there are plenty of free spirits today. It’s about youth and empowerment. Youth tends to want to discard the past,” he concludes, “until they realize they need it.”