In the opera that was Frank Sinatra’s life, actress and world-class beauty Ava Gardner was his Carmen. Over a few tumultuous years, the high-strung, hard-drinking pair fell in love, fought, married, strayed, reconciled and made each other ecstatically miserable in a never-ending battle for control.
In their passions, Twyla Tharp saw a dance.
Several dances, in fact. Her musical “Come Fly Away,” at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday through April 29, turns the push-pull between the crooner and the sex goddess into some of the most inflamed, mock-vicious duets a proscenium stage can hold.
This show is absolutely a Sinatra-fest, but it’s not a lovefest. It’s as seductive, virtuosic and occasionally cruel as the Chairman himself, whose disembodied voice blazes through such songs as “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Makin’ Whoopee” and “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” accompanied by a live brass band.
Sinatra’s agitated spirit is also reflected in the dancing, which unspools as a series of encounters among four couples in the most diabolical of nightclubs. The setting is the kind of place where you nearly drown in the whirlpool at the bottom of your martini glass and the music howls like a storm and when you finally come up for air, you’re not at all the same person who walked in.
“We push it,” Tharp acknowledged in an interview recently in her airy, sparsely furnished Upper West Side apartment. She’s talking about the volcanic physicality in the show, which may take fans of her modern and ballet works by surprise. “Come Fly Away” is fueled by another order of energy. The dancing hits harder, the men are more propulsive and the women sexier and more cranked-open than in any of Tharp’s previous works, either for Broadway or for the concert stage.
There is nothing stylized here, and in one duet the realism is especially intense, carried out by the characters Hank and Kate to the song “That’s Life.” Stand-ins for Sinatra and Gardner, they’d been misbehaving all night, hotdogging and two-timing, and now the gloves come off. He yanks her around like a rag doll, grabs her by the neck, pushes her down so hard her head seems to bang on the floor in time with the music. She flies at him like a wildcat.
At a February tour stop in Baltimore, this number drew the loudest applause from the audience members, who were responding to the physical excitement but also, presumably, to the heat bound up in the material. The violence may shock, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s in the orchestration’s rhythmic snap, in Sinatra’s pounding defiance, in the torch he carried for Gardner that was more like a Molotov cocktail.
Tharp pushes, and knows the cheers will come.
“First of all, it’s virtuosic partnering,” she says, leaning back in her chair. The afternoon sunlight glints off her large round glasses, which are black, like everything else she’s wearing —austere pressed blouse, jeans, sneakers. Her salt-and-pepper hair is cut short. In an incongruous note of mischief, delicate, dangly gold earrings jiggle as she speaks in a cultured monotone.
“It looks like some kind of brawl, but you know how extraordinarily, technically astute these people are. Second of all, she gives as good as she gets.”
Tharp understands the strength it takes to dance Kate’s part because she crafted the duet on herself. The studio where many of the show’s entanglements were worked out stretches behind her, an expanse of wood floor and unadorned white walls that is the heart of her home, literally and figuratively. It is as plain and empty as a Quaker meeting house.
“I’ve done a lot of weight training so I have a very strong upper back,” Tharp continues. At 70 she’s still a fitness addict with a regular gym habit, despite breaking a foot a few months ago. “So I can really pull back and hold my grounding. And I know that if I fall I can catch myself. So chances were taken. And people respond in the theater when chances are taken.
“It’s like at the circus: You have a great tightrope walker, and he doesn’t have any problem, but he knows that it’s gotta look like he slips three times or the audience is going to go home. Right?”
She’s not seeking agreement. She knows she’s right. Tharp’s parents ran a drive-in movie theater in California, and she grew up studying its audience — what scenes glued them to their cars, which ones sent them to the hotdog stand. In her own career, risk has been a constant, from her breakthrough piece for the Joffrey Ballet — “Deuce Coupe,” in 1973, a shocking mashup of her modern dance troupe with classically trained dancers — to “Push Comes to Shove” in 1976 for American Ballet Theatre, which revealed Russian star Mikhail Baryshnikov’s teasing, antic side.
Since then, Tharp has created works for modern dance, ballet, television, film (“Hair,” “Amadeus,” “White Nights”), ice skaters and Broadway (her rock ballet “Movin’ Out,” with music by Billy Joel, played there for three years and won Tonys for Tharp and Joel). She has built a brand that no choreographer can match. Certainly none has handled such variety with her record of success.
But what Tharp returns to again and again in a two-hour discussion of her methods is that a trail of misses led to her hits. This, she says, is the point of her soon-to-be-unveiled Web site. To view its glories, we moved into her living room, where she instructed her son, Jesse Huot, who is working on it with a couple of assistants, where to click to show off its archival notes, photos and video. When completed in four or five months, the site will catalogue each project, from 1965 on, with clips of the rehearsals and improvisations that led to the final product. What’s important to note, she says, is that her output consists overwhelmingly of minor “bridge pieces,” alongside the masterworks, or “ur-pieces.”
“The bridge pieces are the ones that are not of concern,” Tharp says. “But one-third of them are ur-pieces, and you don’t get to the ur-pieces without the bridges.”
She looks back on her earliest efforts with an analytical eye, but also with self-deprecating affection. Take a piece called “Unprocessed,” from the 1960s, which she’d forgotten about. No film exists, so Tharp called up Margaret Jenkins, the San Francisco choreographer who was one of Tharp’s earliest company members. The entry for this dance contains Jenkins’s recollection, which Tharp reads aloud over Huot’s shoulder: “ ‘I was bound in elastic and had to slowly peel it off, then walked down some steps and eventually cracked an egg on the porch and continued, doing a backward somersault.’”
Tharp turns around with a puckish smile. “Now, is that not an account of early modern dance?”
Yet the experimental stage is not over for Tharp. This assured, experienced and celebrated master of her craft is still feeling her way along.
This is her third pass at “Come Fly Away.” It is now a one-act musical — 80 minutes, no intermission. But it started out as a lengthier, rambling show called “Come Fly With Me,” opening in Atlanta in 2009. It was whittled down for its second existence, as a Broadway show that closed after five months. When casino owner Steve Wynn asked Tharp to bring the show to his Wynn resort in Las Vegas, she restored some of what had been cut from the Atlanta version (such as the original opening, a dreamy a cappella rendition of “Stardust”) and lopped off other chunks to quicken the pace.
Wynn, such a Sinatra fan that his resort features a restaurant named for the singer, had a few suggestions about the show’s song lineup. He favored gambling-themed songs. Initially, Tharp pushed back — “You’re kidding, right? Nobody tells me what music to use,” she says. Then she reconsidered, and agreed. So “Luck Be a Lady” was in: In a show about the faces of love, Tharp says, “you might as well have your opening number say it’s all a matter of chance, folks, because that’s kind of where we’re at.” Same for “Here’s to the Losers,” which reveals the cutthroat side of another Gardner-like girl, a character named Babe who enters the nightclub with one man, falls for another and mistreats them both.
“Come Fly Away” has deeper roots than its Atlanta tryouts — it is Tharp’s fourth creation to Sinatra’s voice. Going back to the ’70s she has made three previous short works to some of the same songs. One of these, “Nine Sinatra Songs,” is among her greatest pieces. (The Washington Ballet performed it on its all-Tharp program in February.)
But in “Come Fly Away,” Tharp tailored the tension and tone to a different audience.
“If you go like this — ” Tharp leans to the side and gently floats an arm into the air like a swooning Margot Fonteyn, “or if you go like this” — she performs the same move, but sharper, as if her arm had been yanked, “one’s going to register better for the theater audience than the other, and one’s going to register better for the dance audience than the other.
She shows the yank again. “That is going to look out of control to a dance audience, but it’s exciting to a theater audience. And that” — the gentler gesture — “has beauty to a dance audience, but the theater audience is going to go, ‘What the [expletive] is that?’ Right? Is it not true?”
Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser saw the Broadway and the Vegas versions, and, having missed out on “Movin’ Out” when that show was touring, gambled on the Sinatra show.
“What’s astonishing to me is how well it’s selling,” says Kaiser. “It’s dance, and there’s no speaking, no book to it, and I was unsure if the audience would buy out the Eisenhower for two weeks.” As of last week, the run was 85 percent sold.
Tharp is quite sure this will be her last Sinatra work. Since she completed “Come Fly Away,” she has moved on to another ambitious project: choreographing a full-length children’s ballet. Called “The Princess and the Goblin,” and based on a story by the Scottish author George MacDonald, it was premiered by the Atlanta Ballet in February. She’s reworking it for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which will perform it in October.
She credits her Broadway shows as leading her, bridge-like, to the world of narrative dance, and to another new stage in her career.
“Look, the adventure for me is in learning,” she says. “It’s the opportunity to go in the studio and work every day.”
And if her ballet fans find the Sinatra show rocks too hard? Tharp isn’t worried about managing expectations.
“Expectations, I can’t do anything about. I think that the righteous thing to expect is really good dancing. I believe that it’s both a valid theatrical dramatic experience and really terrific dancing. So there you are.”
She sits back and grins. Her earrings bounce. “I like to think that we have something for everybody.”
Is that the royal “we?”
“Yes,” says Tharp, her smile widening as she considers the joke, and approves it. “Absolutely.”
READ MORE excerpts from Sarah Kaufman’s interview with Tharp on the Style Blog .
Conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp. Vocals by Frank Sinatra. Scenic design by James Youmans, costumes by Katherine Roth, lighting by Donald Holder, sound design by Peter McBoyle, music direction by Rob Cookman. Wednesday-April 29 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $59-$125. 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600. Or visit www.kennedy-center.org.