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How Tharp's moves met Elfman's music

Matched by American Ballet Theatre, the choreographer and the composer bring a bold work to Orange County.

August 03, 2008|Susan Reiter | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — AN EXPANSIVE new work from one of the world's leading choreographers, set to an original score by a high-profile composer making his first foray into the world of dance -- this is hardly American Ballet Theatre's usual fare these days. The multi-part programs that once were the troupe's standard offerings have given way for the most part to full-evening narrative works, especially for touring engagements, as presenters prefer to play things safe.

But one of the company's most ambitious new ventures, Twyla Tharp's "Rabbit and Rogue," with a score by Danny Elfman, is not only beginning six performances at the Orange County Performing Artscenter on Wednesday but was also co-commissioned by the venue.

The 45-minute work, for a cast of 22, received decidedly mixed reviews after its premiere in New York in June. But it's undeniably big and bold and filled with dense movement. The five sections of Elfman's score specifically allude to such disparate musical sources as ragtime and gamelan, but his subtly shifting, propulsive music also has moments evocative of Lou Harrison, Darius Milhaud, raucous circusy sounds and shimmering Minimalism.

Tharp, who last choreographed for ballet companies in 2000, has returned to ballet in a big way this year. In March, Miami City Ballet premiered her "Nightspot," to a commissioned score by Elvis Costello. "Rabbit and Rogue" followed, and these days she is in Seattle working on a pair of premieres for an all-Tharp program by Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Although she formed a chamber-sized touring company in 2000 for which she made several bracing new works -- right after creating imposing ballets to Beethoven (for New York City Ballet) and Brahms (for ABT) -- Tharp soon went in a very different direction, collaborating with two of the foremost living singer-songwriters on Broadway projects that stretched the definition of a musical. "Movin' Out," set to Billy Joel songs, was a triumph; "The Times They Are A-Changin'," to Bob Dylan, less so.

In 2006 -- around the time the latter show was making its move from San Diego, where it originated, to Broadway -- Elfman was approached by ABT about the idea of a commissioned score. "I'm not well versed in contemporary choreography, but they invited me to their gala in New York that fall, and Twyla's 'In the Upper Room' was fresh in my mind when they asked me which choreographer I'd like to work with," the former frontman of the rock group Oingo Boingo and composer of scores for such films as "Spider-Man" and the original "Batman" recalled recently by phone from his Los Angeles office. But he said consternation greeted his mention of Tharp's name. He was told how difficult a Tharp collaboration would be, how officials doubted she'd be interested. Back in L.A. a few days later, though, he got a call: Tharp was very interested. Could he return to New York for a meeting?

"We hung out for an afternoon and said let's do it. We got to know each other, talking about narrative versus non-narrative, the pros and cons of each," Elfman said. From the start, the work was envisioned as half of a program -- longer than the standard 20- to 30-minute repertory work but less than evening-length.

Tharp, despite the oft-chronicled many hours she spent at her family's drive-in while growing up in Rialto, claims, "I'm not a moviegoer, so I hadn't seen his work there." But perched at an outdoor table at a restaurant near her Upper West Side apartment, sportily dressed, looking tanned and far younger than her 67 years, she explained why Elfman intrigued her as a collaborator: "He has a ton of energy. He has a lot of range, he's very versatile -- and he had his own rock 'n' roll band. Who could not love that? Also, he knows his film history, and he knows his 20th century classical music history -- the Russians in particular."

L.A. native Elfman, 55, noted, "The music that inspired me in the first place was mostly composed for ballet. My connection to ballet was through music. It was 'Rite of Spring' that turned my world upside down when I was 17. Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet' contains everything one needs to learn film scoring. It has mirth, excitement, fighting, romance, whimsy. Give me Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich any day. It gets my blood going.

"I figured, 'I'll start and then go play music with Twyla and see what she responds to.' I wrote about 14 pieces at the beginning. Her response was more complex than what I imagined. It wasn't, 'This I could dance to, and this I can't.' It was, 'Oh wow, I can take these pieces and put them together. This next to this would be great. This could be a pas de deux' -- stuff I never would have imagined.

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