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.

The dancers in "Movin' Out" are professionally trained in ballet, the most rigorous of dance styles, and several have careers with Twyla Tharp Dance. There are two casts, to save the dancers from exhaustion. Both in technique and in emotion, the Elizabeth Parkinson-Keith Roberts duo for Brenda and Tony is the stronger. A memorable performance is given by Ashley Tuttle as Judy in the scene danced to Joel's song "The Stranger," in which three men who lurk in the shadows lift and toss her about. The light plasticity of Tuttle as the strangers toss her is singular and striking.

After examining Tharp's mature works, you will not be misled by the enthusiastic but aimless prancing of modern avant-garde dance. You will not be over-awed by a masterful but ultimately meaningless routine, or by a dance-maker whose overall aim is for his dancers to look pretty. Aesthetics is significant, but it should not stand without some backbone of logic.

WHY DO SO MANY BALLETS fall short of profundity? Depth comes from the choreographer's process and philosophy as well as innate talent, and the typical choreographic process inhibits visual unity. Most dance-makers create dances by improvising to music and then paring down this raw material to make a ballet. The final product is a rehearsed improvisation with beginning and ending added as afterthought. If the ballet seems to meander in the middle, it is because it was not created to lead to an end. Instead of visual unity, the ballet may be organized according to the structure of the music in a way that may be incomprehensible to the audience. This does not bother most dance-makers because they practice their art from inward-inspired forces, by themselves, for themselves. They consider themselves dancers on par with the company, apart from the audience.

Tharp, by contrast, finds that she can better judge her works when she sits in the audience. The effect is that the work is more understandable. Raw material for a Tharp ballet might be inspired by a photograph or object, by a feeling required by the narrative, by the music's mood or by other people's choreography, for example Michael Jackson's moonwalk by William Marrié as Eddie. (Marrié was recently killed in a motorcycle accident and will be missed.) Although Tharp might spend hundreds of hours improvising raw material for a ballet, she insists that her works have visual unity: a beginning, middle, and end. The result of the choreographic process is that Tharp's ballets may not lean on any particular score. She proves this point in an introductory passage to the televised version of "In The Upper Room" in which she dances the same several-minute sequence to two tunes with entirely different moods.

SHE IS DESCRIBED as a crossover artist for her use of steps from many genres, and she enjoys a palette of steps wider than that used by any of her peers. "Movin' Out" is done in toe shoes and sneakers, on the floor in break-dance acrobatics and in the air with lifts exuberant, lascivious, graceful, whatever is appropriate. All styles coexist naturally within her idiom. Tharp's philosophy and dance-making method allow her to adopt different styles, work independently of music, edit her creations, see her works as one in the audience might see them, and . . . in her quest for classicism, create a narrative tied to human experience in a way which is also universal. Whether in film or theater, on the concert stage or now on Broadway, her greatest ballets will endure.

Twyla Tharp has remarked that many of her ballets were made to solve a particular problem. What she has learned over the course of making more than a hundred dances brings mastery to the art. That is why, in the year 2000, the Dance Heritage Coalition and the Library of Congress elected to honor not any particular one of her works, but rather to honor the choreographer herself among the First 100 of America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.

Judith Gelernter has contributed to the "International Dictionary of Modern Dance," Dance Research Journal, Ballet Review, and "A Core Collection in Dance."