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DANCE : Tippet’s Ballet Opens for ABT at Arts Center

Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Clark Tippet was making the not-so-glamorous transition from virtuoso to character roles when his career veered in a new direction.

Suddenly, dancer Tippet became choreographer Tippet.

His first effort, “Enough Said,” a battle of the sexes set to the quirky score of George Perle, opened to favorable reviews across the county. The work was created in 1986 as part of the New York company’s choreographers’ showcase, seen locally in 1987 as a filler for ABT’s new production of “Giselle.”

Now comes Tippet’s second ballet: “Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1,” set to the familiar Bruch score. It will be premiered today, when ABT opens a 12-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

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Tippet is excited, but a little wary.

“It all happened really fast,” Tippet said from New York. “A year and a half ago, none of these ballets were in the works. I never thought of choreographing. . . . (But) I would not be the first person to do two ballets at ABT and never do another one. So if this is a bomb, you won’t be doing another interview. But I don’t think it will be. It will be a lot of fun.”

Tippet describes “Bruch Concerto” as a departure from “Enough Said.”

“That was a very contemporary sort of thing. This isn’t. This is a 19th-Century romantic violin concerto, and the ballet is an old-fashioned classical ballet piece, built around four different types of pas de deux.”

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Tippet will be dancing one pas de deux with Susan Jaffe today in place of the originally scheduled Ethan Brown.

Tippet said that his choice of the music was “an accident, like everything else.”

“I bought (a recording of) Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and Max Bruch--as always--was (relegated to) side two,” he said. “It’s a really wonderful piece. I just assumed it was choreographed and was a big hit somewhere, but when I researched it, I found that it really hadn’t been.”

In addition to four principal couples, the work uses a corps of 16.

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“This is my first corps experience,” Tippet said. “That was the most exciting thing. The rest are pas de deux. I knew I could do that. The main thing was, am I going to be able to work with the corps?”

Tippet said that his preference for complex choreography led to some problems, however.

“I like choreography that is a lot more complicated than would be pleasing for about 85% of the audience,” he said. “I like really complicated patterns, sometimes even when I’m the only one who understands them.

“In one of the sections, my ballet master said, ‘That was a mess.’ Yeah, that happened a few times, which was kind of nice. My first inhibition in choreographing was thinking that I was not going to be able to come up with anything complicated or interesting enough.

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“So it was nice to be able to cut down instead of being forced to add something. I had to really simplify this so that it’s easy to watch.”

Nonetheless, Tippet called the work “a real showpiece for the dancers.”

“I did it for them, because of the dancers we have in the company now, the new Ballet Theatre. They are really young and extremely powerful technically. They do pull out all the stops, and Bruch does that in the music. . . . And you never really get to have Leslie (Browne), Susan (Jaffe), Cheryl (Yeager) and Amanda (McKerrow) all on stage at the same time. I get them all!” he laughed.

Tippet said he took a different creative approach to the Bruch piece than he used in “Enough Said,” for which he went into the studio with everything choreographed beforehand.

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“With ‘Bruch,’ I would go into the studio and choreograph in front of 35 people,” he said. “It was a big step. They could be intimidating: like a gaping, yawning mouth. So that was the biggest change, to go in there knowing the music and using what I had to work with. . . . Confidence was a big help.”

Confidence was not always Tippet’s strong point.

Tippet dropped out of ABT in the years 1978-82, impelled by gnawing self-doubt.

“Dancing never did it for me,” he said. “I always had this third-person experience: I was dancing, and I was also watching it. There was so much effort, so little return. The only thing I got out of it was that you could sleep well because you were so tired. So this is just great.”

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Nor did Tippet find dancing an outlet for personal creativity.

“Personal expressivity? I wish it were true. That’s all hogwash, baloney. It’s athletics. This is personal expressivity. It’s theater according to Clark Tippet. An arabesque according to Clark Tippet is nothing. An arabesque is an arabesque, no matter what they say. You do it right on the music. You do what you’re told, pretty much.

“Maybe I missed something,” he added, with a laugh.

In creating his own choreography, Tippet prefers not to be so dogmatic:

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“I go into the room and say, ‘Let’s do something fun. What do you want to do--aside from cheerleader jumps?’ Then, of course, they’re not as dumb as the quintessential dumb dancer is supposed to be. That’s why getting to use Leslie, Amanda, Susan and Cheryl is so great. That’s not chicken feed. Because when they have an idea of what will look good on them, they’re usually right.”

Still, the youthfulness of the company brings Tippet some unpleasant realizations.

“I was sitting in the lounge--this shows how old you are--eating my sandwich when one of the new kids asked me when I joined the company. I said, in 1972. ‘Oh, I wasn’t born then,’ she said. It was just horrifying. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of the kids.”

Tippet doesn’t believe that he can be undermined again as a choreographer, as he was when he became a successful dancer: “There’s no danger of that. There would be if I had a big personal investment in it. But I have nothing to prove.

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“I had a perfectly respectable career as a principal dancer in one of the two major companies in the world. . . . If I’m a failure (as a choreographer), it doesn’t really matter to me that much. And I don’t think I will be because of that.

“Choreographing is a big extra thing happening in my life. It may turn out to be the main thing, but it was not a planned thing. But this is definitely the best it’s ever been for me.”


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