When Tharp Meets Sinatra, She Does It Her Way

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

ATLANTA -- A man steps out of the darkness and stirs his hips in fillips of anticipation at the start of "Come Fly With Me," a dazzling new musical by Twyla Tharp. Eyes closed, he shoots out his legs, tracing the ghost of a soft-shoe, and we see the present moment drop from him like a veil. In its place is some other time, some other him. What sparked this reverie is a chills-up-the-spine recording of "Stardust," sung ever so wistfully by Frank Sinatra, and the scene is a tribute to the visceral power of a song.

Because Tharp's language is movement, she shows us Sinatra's potency by using his songs to get her cast dancing as if it's the last night on Earth. In terms of sheer energy, you're unlikely to see anything like this outside of a chemical explosion -- the whizzing lifts, the carnal cuddling, the jumps that gnash at the air, translating the bravado and ache of Sinatra's vocals into a glamorous collision of dreams and reality.

The idea behind "Come Fly With Me," which Tharp conceived and directed as well as choreographed, is simple enough: Four couples enter a nightclub, dance and are forever changed. But despite what you might expect, Sinatra's voice isn't milked for its nostalgic power. This isn't a sentimental retrospective. Sinatra comes at you hot and fierce, or with a melancholy sting, or a gleeful cockiness that could light up the sky, and he feels entirely now. His music, and Tharp's response to it, turned Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where "Come Fly With Me" plays through next Sunday, into the capital of cool -- not because we were transported back to 1959 (there is nothing in the show from that era but the music), but because we were whirling through a timeless space where human pain has never looked or sounded so good.

The dancing is sensational throughout -- a virtuosic blend of loose-limbed jazz and athletic ballet, delivered with increasing heat. In the show's darker second half, the cast at one point strips to its underwear in an erotic clash of intimacy and display. Many of the performers, including the show's anchors, Keith Roberts and John Selya, are veterans of Tharp's previous Broadway forays, her Billy Joel opus "Movin' Out" or her ill-fated ode to Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

However, "Come Fly With Me" -- produced in part by Gaithersburg-based Troika Entertainment -- shares only a distant kinship with those and other jukebox musicals so common on Broadway nowadays. What's different here is that Tharp tells this story not through the song lyrics but through her choreography and Sinatra's feeling, stitching a danced-through narrative to more than two dozen of his recordings. Think of it as the pop opera to his arias. But the relationship between movement and lyrics is intentionally loose. Where it was largely Joel's songwriting that told the story of war and its aftermath in "Movin' Out," here Tharp digs deeper into her own choreographic gifts, harnessing the emotional pitch of Sinatra's vocals to color her dance portraits of the characters and their romantic entanglements.

Sinatra's music is familiar ground for Tharp, who has created three other shorter works to his recordings ("Once More Frank," which she danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov; the superb "Nine Sinatra Songs," a series of whimsical ballroom-dance duets; and its darker spinoff, "Sinatra Suite," another Baryshnikov showcase). But narrative choreography is new for Tharp. Mostly, she succeeds with it, though the tale feels sketchy in spots. The show arcs from the jaunty high of "World on a String," which sweeps the characters into the club, to the more sobering, grown-up waltz of "My Way," whose soaring notes of triumph Tharp hears as a celebration of finally getting one's life together.

The sense of personal transformation is most clear in the main couple, Roberts and Karine Plantadit, whose scenes of betrayal and vindictiveness provide most of the evening's tension. Their chemistry is one of the show's luxuries: Plantadit plays the strung-out, attention-hungry diva while Roberts is the submerged, seething loner. When he finally uncoils in "That's Life," he's all the more explosive for his understatement. Later, the pair's reconciliation in "One More for My Baby" -- when he seems to be telling her, you may be a mess, but you're my mess -- is unspeakably tender.

To those unfamiliar with Tharp's other Sinatra works, his songs may seem odd fare for a musical. After all, for the most part he crooned make-out music, not dance tunes. But his way of shading lyrics with palpable drama seems to feed Tharp endless duet material, even in this fourth pass at his work. (She uses his songs for intimate dancing, while a few crackling Count Basie numbers get the whole cast cooking.) Sinatra's voice is treated well here, coming across as robust and unprocessed. At times it's backed by an excellent 16-piece live band. Occasionally, Dee Daniels, a tall, spiky-haired chanteuse, emerges to sing a few standards, offering the woman's perspective in understated, pearly counterpoint to Sinatra's bourbon-cured confessional tones. (Daniels also shares bandleader duties with drummer Dennis Mackrel.)

Tharp gives a new twist to a few songs she's used before. In "Nine Sinatra Songs," "That's Life" showed us a feisty but utterly devoted couple. In "Come Fly With Me," the same song gives us the flip side, a couple at the breaking point. The earlier version of "That's Life" ended with the man catching his woman with a careless familiarity that left you breathless; in "Come Fly," Roberts makes the same catch -- then throws Plantadit violently to the floor.

Whether it gets to Broadway or not, this creation ought to only further Tharp's dominance as the dance world's most innovative hitmaker. A big reason for this is that Tharp is an ace at making pop songs work for artistic purposes. In 1973 she set her breakthrough ballet, "Deuce Coupe," to the Beach Boys.

Yet she is still virtually alone in using the popular songbook for serious dance. Why is no one else attempting this? Surely one of the reasons dance as an art form has such an elitist reputation -- and with that, a limited audience -- is its over-reliance on classical, minimalist or otherwise ultra-brainy forms of music. Musical adventurousness in the concert dance world too often means finding the least accessible compositions -- dry, stringy stuff by Arvo P?rt, say, or Gy?rgi Ligeti.

When pop music does finds its way into a dance production, it generally serves to pump up the emotions or set a mood, but rarely does it inspire revelatory choreography. A few years ago, rock standards were all the rage in the ballet world: American Ballet Theatre had "Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison," Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre boasted "A Brand New Day" to music by Sting, and so on. On stage after stage, hips hammered dutifully to the beat. But the works tended to be as forgettable as they were loud, because the music was used as a gimmick, for its contrast with ballet conventions, and not as inspiration for some coherent statement.

Pop songs have fared somewhat better in the modern-dance world. Take Paul Taylor's masterful "Company B," which uses songs by the Andrews Sisters in an evocation of wartime Americana that feels eerily immediate. Both Taylor and Tharp approach pop music with the same seriousness of purpose as they would any other score. They capture its seductive power to explore their own ideas.

Tharp clearly respects pop music as folk art, with a from-the-people vitality and earthiness. And she chooses wisely. She picks music that offers more than a beat, an attitude or a mood.

But not all the elements in "Come Fly With Me" come together with equal success. The other couples aren't as clearly etched as Roberts and Plantadit. With her gamine red hair and curves, Holley Farmer, the former prima of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is a ring-a-ding beauty and Selya, her partner, is a softhearted player. Could heaven produce a better match? I think not, but it might have produced a better story line. She was in control at the start, and she finished up that way, and all along he panted after her -- aside from a slippery-cool, introspective solo in which he takes stock of his life, accompanied by "The September of My Years." (This is one of several Sinatra songs I hadn't heard before; kudos to Tharp for reintroducing some of his lesser-known recordings.) Charlie Neshyba-Hodges and Laura Mead are the cute couple -- and the comic relief; their Lindy Hop goes charmingly splat in "Let's Fall in Love," a clever catalogue of slips, trips and pell-mell skids across the stage. The role for Matthew Dibble, a silvery technician, and the waiflike Rika Okamoto was less distinct; Tharp doesn't give them much of a focus.

Donald Holder's sensitive lighting deepens the mood. James Youmans's spare decor is unremarkable but unobtrusive. Katherine Roth's costumes are a mixed bag; they are careful, perhaps too careful, not to suggest any particular era. But they don't offer much style. Not that these performers need it.

Tharp was ahead of the curve in exploiting the entertainment potential of ballroom dancing, which is now everywhere on TV. Whatever one might think of the quality that's on the airwaves, what's clear is that an audience exists for formalism and technique -- and for seeing all that accompanied by the songs of the day. I'm not advocating concert dance follow the reality-TV mode. But the commercial realm knows what Tharp discovered decades ago: that dancing bodies and popular music are meant for each other.

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