The Magazine

Broadway Ballet

In "Movin' Out," Twyla Tharp creates a dance to the music of time.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By JUDITH GELERNTER
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WOULD YOU CONSIDER taking two hours to see a Broadway show filled with music by an aging pop star? Some of those who grew up with Billy Joel's songs, featured in this season's hit "Movin' Out" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, disdain the show, thinking it little more than MTV outfitted for Broadway. Others, who have greater fondness for Joel, would gladly go to hear his music performed, even if not by Joel himself.

Others focus not on Billy Joel, but on the Broadway tradition, and some reviewers have criticized "Movin' Out" on account of its plot. In response, the playbill expanded the plot description from a cramped two inches on the cast-and-credits page to a prominent full-page feature.

The secret is that "Movin' Out" is not a "show" at all. It is a full-length ballet performed in choreographer Twyla Tharp's unique idiom, mixing modern dance, classical ballet, jazz, and street dance. Publicity represents it as a new musical because ballet doesn't draw the crowds that Billy Joel's fame does. But once the curtain rises, the musicians' platform ascends--and the stage is reserved for dancers.

Why shouldn't modern dance, an art form born on American soil a century ago, be able to draw crowds without relying on pop stars? Billy Joel-centered publicity for "Movin' Out" concedes to popular biases against ballet--and these biases stem in part from the attitude of dance-makers themselves. Many choreographers are satisfied if they express themselves, caring little whether the audience understands their work. Tharp, on the contrary, writes in her autobiography "Push Comes to Shove" that she aims always to hold the audience's interest. She does not dismiss reviews but responds to them. After "Movin' Out" opened in Chicago, she used the reviews to help edit and erase ambiguities before opening in New York. Her reward is enormous success.

"What I wanted to do was tell a story that would require being told in movement. In other words, violence and sex--this is where I can trump language," she commented in an interview with Newsday. The effect is so powerful that the audience is transported by turns to a battlefront, a midnight bar, a high school reunion. The battlefront scene is realized by troops holding invisible guns, exploding shells simulated by light flashes, and combat fury from the musicians. Throughout the ballet, the mix of everyday gesture and dance movement, and the contrasts of sleaze and sublime, convey the true-to-life.

The action is based on real people and world events. Joel's "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" features two of his friends, Brenda and Eddie, from his high school days in the 1970s, which the ballet transposes to the 1960s. In the first act, at a Long Island high school, Brenda and Eddie split up. Brenda's sensuality toward her new choice, Tony, stands in contrast to the sweetness of Judy, who is engaged to James. The boys join the war effort, and James is killed in combat. War destroys the perfect couple of Judy and James, shatters Eddie's sanity, and rents Brenda and Tony's loyalty. The second act concerns the spiraling of emotions: estrangement after war, anger, bereavement, reconciliation, inspiration, friendship. Eventually Brenda and Tony reconcile, and Eddie learns to control his inner turmoil in a sort of psychological journey that validates the red, white, and blue American-road-sign look of the Movin' Out logo.

Performed by artists of national stature, the effect is powerful. Standing ovations demonstrate that audiences do not need persuading to enjoy "Movin' Out." But its depth has not been sufficiently appreciated. Ballet does not require a profound plot (witness the enchanted swans and nutcracker toy). In fact, it doesn't really require any plot (think of George Balanchine's "Jewels"). All it requires is a theme with a beginning, middle, and end. The "Movin' Out" narrative forms a natural line leading to a conclusion where Brenda and Tony reaffirm their love and Eddie regains the equilibrium he lost in wartime. More than the music, it is the lyrics that help structure this ballet.

In addition to her standard spins and slides, Tharp creates original steps as easily as a poet might coin words. Each scene may feature one or two of the main characters, quite often with ensemble dancers enhancing visual interest. This is satisfying because it allows viewers to shift their gaze to the ensemble for a moment without losing the sense of a prolonged duet central to the narrative.