Twyla Tharp has always been one of the dance world’s wiliest chameleons, able to adapt to circumstances better than most mere mortals.
Going transatlantic for the first time in her peripatetic career as a guest choreographer, she accepted an invitation from Rudolf Nureyev to stage a pair of works for the Paris Opera Ballet. One of them, “As Time Goes By,” was created for the Joffrey Ballet back in 1973, just after Tharp turned the ballet establishment on its head with “Deuce Coupe.” The other, “The Rules of the Game,” was a world premiere.
Paris saw both these works for the first time Feb. 18, as part of a bill showcasing the avant-garde in ballet over half a century. The program opened with a reconstruction by former ballerina Tatiana Leskova of “Les Presages” (1933), Leonide Massine’s first symphonic ballet. Next came “Agon,” George Balanchine’s great Stravinsky collaboration of 1957. Then it was Tharp’s turn, first with her Joffrey piece, staged by her longtime cohort Richard Colton, a member of the original cast.
The evening closed with “Rules of the Game,” a title that punned both on the official ballet lexicon and Jean Renoir’s French film classic. But the title wasn’t the only thing that let us know Tharp was intent on evoking a Gallic atmosphere.
The curtain of the Paris Opera Ballet’s home is an elaborate trompe l’oeil affair of red and gold draperies painted to hang in seemingly luxurious rococo swags. When this curtain rose for “Rules,” it revealed another one designed by Giles Dufour: a replica that seemed to be reflected in a fractured mirror that someone (Tharp, or one of the dancers) had just shattered by hurtling the rule book right at it.
The music too showed an on-going concern with melding past and present. It had a Bach violin sonata at its center, surrounded by elaborate full-orchestra variations that combined modern sounds with classic forms just as Stravinsky did in “Agon.”
A plotless suite of dances for four soloists and a back-up corps of four men and four women, “Rules of the Game” showcased the individual talents of the cast--exactly the kind of ballet that French dancers like to do best. No other company in the world is so prone to “Look, Ma, I’m dancing” narcissism and Tharp seized on this penchant by introducing the cast one by one in a parade of solos that crossed the stage like some grand processional.
Dufour’s tutus--the mid-thigh, droopy-skirted kind, red with an overlay of black net--evoked Degas’ ballerinas. Yet Tharp’s dancers weren’t the Romantic waifs that modern eyes see in pretty Impressionist paintings. Instead, she went after the gritty, hard-working way Degas’ danseuses stood around, arms akimbo with one hip thrust forward. Tharp didn’t stress this tart imagery, but she did treat her dancers as real women with an obvious sexuality that never reduced them to either Snow Whites or Lady Macbeths.
The Paris Opera Ballet was far from Tharp’s only reference point. In addition to Balanchine, she made several nods to Jerome Robbins. But, as with so much of Tharp, pinpointing her sources was only a bonus, not something needed to understand what was zipping past.
The opening night audience was ecstatic, rhythmically slow-clapping Tharp and cast through a long series of curtain calls.
And what French event could ever be complete without a soupcon of la scandale running underneath: Nureyev’s protegee, Sylvie Guillem, was nowhere to be seen, although she was originally meant to be appearing in “Rules of the Game.” Everyone kept officially mum, but rumors were rampant that this etoile with an extension as high as the Eiffel Tower was debating whether to sever, or at the very least drastically re-structure, her allegiance to the company.
The news came a few days later: Guillem had joined the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, as principal guest artist. Too bad it had to happen at this moment. Tharp’s stringency is just what Guillem needed to give her glamorous game a whole new set of rules.