Martha Graham once said, “Movement never lies.” Plenty of truth is needed to pull off dancing to the crooning of Ol’ Blue Eyes, and Cincinnati Ballet tackles this challenge along with Twyla Tharp’s intricate, nuanced choreography in Sinatra Suite & More.
If Tharp’s name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s a living American choreographic legend and 2008 Kennedy Center Honoree who’s best known for crossing boundaries between ballet, modern dance, Broadway and beyond.
Following last season’s Baker’s Dozen, Cincinnati Ballet again presents a piece choreographed by Tharp and restaged by veteran Tharp company member Shelley Washington. Washington has been working with the choreographer since 1975, first as a dancer and now as a veritable expert at restaging Tharp’s sought-after works.
This time it’s Sinatra Suite from 1984, a series of four duets and a solo set to well-known Sinatra standards. (The program also features new works from the Ballet’s Associate Artistic Director Devon Carney and New York City-based choreographer Jessica Lang alongside Balanchine’s Tarantella.)
Although Suite’s choreography draws inspiration from the airiness of ballroom dance and well-known Frank Sinatra standards, it also requires a certain authenticity. The moves might look carefree, but the challenges are weighty. The costumes, for one: Kristi Capps must maneuver in high heels and a long dress (designed by Oscar de la Renta), and Anthony Krutzkamp has to work with a tuxedo jacket.
There are also difficult lifts and slides, as well as “tricky, tricky partnering,” Washington explains by phone from her Cincinnati hotel.
“Some of the stuff looks so easy, especially in Tharp,” she says. “Some of it looks so slow, and it’s faster than you can imagine and vice versa, and it’s really not easy. You can’t use the ballet words to verbalize the steps, right? Because it’s not ballet.”
She likens the restaging and dancers’ learning process to teaching a child to ride a bicycle. First come the training wheels, then “all of a sudden, they think you’re behind them pushing, and you’ve let go.”
Washington says listening closely to the music is also part of the process.
“Twyla picked those songs for a reason,” she explains. “Each of those duets shows a different kind of love, a different kind of relationship.
“I said to (Capps and Krutzkamp), ‘OK, don’t move. Listen to the words’: ‘When somebody loves you/it’s no good unless they love you/all the way,’ ” she says. “It’s hard for people to sit still and just listen, and they do. Then all of a sudden, three or four days later you see the magic!”
Context matters, too: Washington informs dancers about the time period when the piece was first created musically and creatively. She also tells them about the original people for whom the dances were made, but without the expectation that they “be” those dancers.
In the original Sinatra Suite, Mikhail Baryshnikov danced a role Tharp created especially for him. While the dancers have to do exactly the same steps, Washington isn’t interested in simply re-creating the past.
“Certainly anybody has room for their own interpretation,” she says. “Baryshnikov looked to the right. You gotta look to the right, but (it’s) how you look to the right. You can’t make (Krutzkamp) be Baryshnikov, and I don’t want him to be Baryshnikov. I don’t want anyone to have to look exactly like the original — that’s impossible. And why? It’s 2009.
“I don’t want to live in the past and what it used to be,” Washington says. “I’m very interested in how we can make it better and what it can be and what it is.”
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