Throughout its 50-year history, the American Ballet Theatre has made eclecticism its calling card.
During its weeklong San Diego stay at the Civic Theatre, which began Monday and ends Saturday, ABT will dance eight programs, including a series of repertory programs that feature diverse works by Balanchine, Taylor, Massine, De Mille, Mark Morris and ABT’s own Twyla Tharp.
Tharp, a full-blown superstar for years who joined the troupe last summer as artistic associate, has wrought major changes on the company. She added seven Tharp soloists to the ABT roster and created three new technique-stretching dances for the troupe. Tharp has also garnered the lion’s share of attention this season, upstaging even ABT’s legendary director Mikhail Baryshnikov.
It’s not the first time other leading choreographers, most notably Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille, have worked closely with ABT. But their influence on the company was not as pervasive or “as vivid” as Tharp’s, said ABT regisseur Susan Jones during rehearsals.
“We’ve never had anybody quite as prolific,” Jones said. “And Tudor’s style, or De Mille’s for that matter, wasn’t that different for our dancers.”
For ABT dancers, the arrival of Tharp has involved fundamental changes. How have they reacted to the Tharp invasion?
“The people who want to be challenged, who are eager to learn, get more involved,” said Jones, a former dancer. “I suppose if they’re not (receptive), they just don’t make themselves as available--even if it’s on a subliminal basis.”
“Some of the dancers who didn’t get involved with Tharp were a little anxious about the changes,” said San Diego dancer Laura Hood, a newcomer to ABT. “But the only difference I notice in the way things are now is that we have to work a lot harder to learn her stuff. I don’t consider it a strain, I consider it a challenge.”
ABT principal Cynthia Harvey said: “I guess some people feel it’s a big change, but I’ve worked with Twyla since 1976 when she did ‘Push Comes to Shove.’ She’s a hard taskmaster, but I’ve benefited from her style, different as it seems. It’s actually helped me with my classical ballet.”
For San Diego transplant Dana Stackpole, Tharp’s coming was a real bonanza.
“Tharp just spotted me and gave me a chance to do ‘In the Upper Room,’ which is an incredible piece,” said the 23-year-old dancer. “She’s using me a lot.
“Now, I’m getting to do solo and demi-solo roles, and I’m going to do Paul Taylor’s ‘Airs.’ I’ll be dancing as much as anyone in the San Diego performances.”
Keith Roberts is a corps dancer who thrives on Tharp’s tricky repertory. But he acknowledges that “some people in the company aren’t into it. It’s a matter of what people feel comfortable with. . . . I have some modern background, but the challenge here is physical and mental.”
Integrating Tharp’s post-modernists into the predominantly ballet-oriented troupe has been a smooth process, although the newcomers concentrate on modern works and make only cameo appearances in the classics.
“Actually, it’s hardest for them than for the ABT dancers,” Harvey said. “They’re used to being stars in their company, and here they’re not dancing as much. Twyla has certainly gone out on a limb to use the ABT dancers. She’s not just playing it safe.”
Is that a problem to the Tharp contingency?
Not for Tharp dancer Elaine Kudo, who said merging with the ABT dancers is actually coming home.
“I was with American Ballet from 1975 to ’85, and I was in five of her pieces then,” she said. “But for most of the Tharp dancers, it’s really a learning experience.”
Tharp-trained Jamie Bishton forecasts a happy future for the new hybrid.
“There’s no resentment from the ABT dancers,” Bishton said. “Although Twyla has some stylistic differences, ballet is still the backbone of her technique. Of course, I never imagined in a million years I’d be doing ‘Swan Lake'--not even a character role.”
It’s still too soon to assess the effect Tharp and her oeuvre will have on the ABT. However, as Jones noted, “Any choreographer who works that intimately with a company is going to have an effect.”