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'Come Fly Away' with Twyla and Frank

First, Holley Farmer got the role of Babe in the new Tharp-choreographed musical using Sinatra songs. Then she became the poster girl for the show, which hits L.A. this week.

October 23, 2011|By Holley Farmer, Special to the Los Angeles Times

I'm the girl in the blue dress dancing on Frank Sinatra's hat. I'm also on a key chain and a magnet. I'm not in the production of Twyla Tharp's musical "Come Fly Away" that's reaching the Pantages Theatre this week, but I'm proud my image is being used for publicity. There we are, my trusty partner and I, locked in a cameo dance embrace. My knee is wrapped faithfully around his waist. We are staring at each other's noses. I've seen this pose replicated over and over during the credits for "Dancing With the Stars." I understand why the "Come Fly Away" producers continue to use it; it's kind of perfect.

The woman is off-balance, sending all her weight toward her partner, who she knows will catch her, and maybe whisper something into her ear or stroke her thigh. She looks swept away. During the Broadway run at the Marquis Theatre, I stood in this pose on a poster 30 feet tall. I used to get a cheap thrill seeing pedestrians suddenly pairing off and getting their photo taken with John Selya and me in flagrante dance-licto.

I learned that pose from Twyla and John two years ago in a sweaty attic studio at Hunter College on Lexington and 68th Street. I showed up before official rehearsals began for an informal discovery phase of what was originally called "Come Fly With Me," to give myself an opportunity to work out in a sort of Twyla boot camp.

Twyla searched high and low for someone to partner with John. When she chose me, I was thrilled to finally work with her. She asked for my commitment with no agenda other than that. How could I have known that in less than a year, I'd be starring on Broadway, dancing backward and in heels? For the last 12 years (plus one as an apprentice), I had performed barefoot, usually wearing a Lycra unitard for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Merce taught me how to hold myself up in almost any position and how to count the timing of a dance phrase to the second without music. Neither of these skills proved transferable to Twyla's style.

Why did she come to me? One dance insider told me that Misha (Mikhail Baryshnikov) had suggested it. I thought perhaps she'd read the article in the New York Times that I and two other dancers in Merce's company were being unceremoniously fired. But it turned out that one of our mutual friends, Sue Weil, ex-wife of Robert Rauschenberg (and the Sue of "Sue's Leg," a 1975 dance by Twyla), had suggested it.

I suspect the reasons she hired me after that are simple. She likes to get into the skin of her dancers, feel what it's like to move with them. She's very hands on. In "Come Fly Away," she worked with dancers whose veins course with the experience of American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and Cunningham. She truly loved Merce. Through my body, she got to see what he'd been up to all these years.

A few weeks before Merce died in July 2009, I got to tell him how it felt to be picked up and held high in the air to the music of Frank Sinatra. He was delighted.

Working with Tharp

That month, Twyla put me through paces that were specific and odd when you considered her nearly 50-year canon of choreography. Her warm-up included aspects of yoga, ballet, isometrics and movements that reminded me of Jazzercise. We also resisted gravity in every plane possible; on the floor, against a wall, against each other. Twyla leaned into me, hard, asking me to push back. I was relieved when she said, "Better than some."

After the first few days, my partner showed up from his summer vacation, glowing with sun and rest. John usually looks like that due to a fierce devotion to things that make him sweat (ballet, Bikram yoga) and things that make him happy (surfing, his girlfriend). It was clear immediately that he and Twyla had an intuitive connection. Before she finished a direction, he had already performed it. And likewise, she listened eagerly to his suggestions. In essence, I had two directors. By the end of the first day of dancing with John, my dance-o-meter went off the chart. Twyla had choreographed an entire dance for us to Frank's voice. I was lifted 10 feet off the ground and put down all right every time (a first in my adult life). Twyla said she was very proud of our partnership.

The feeling could not have been mutual for John. In the early rehearsals, I succeeded in getting my feet pummeled to imminent toenail loss on both the right and the left. As the weeks wore on, the bruises on my legs and the telltale blood and pus through my soft ballet shoes (I hated wearing even those) were not Twyla's happy-making sight. She was concerned and very patient with my learning curve, but the day came when the real shoes had to go on. Twyla wanted me to be all babe, 3-inch heels forward, walking a seductive tight rope. The first step toward learning how to play the character, Babe, was learning how to walk in her shoes.

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