“‘Deuce Coupe’ said, OK look, we have modern dance over here and we have ballet over here and we have this big void in between,” Tharp said. “Why is there this gully in dance? I think everybody should be able to do everything.”
Set to songs by the Beach Boys — pairing pop music and ballet wasn’t the norm, either — “Deuce Coupe” was the introduction to a different world for Tharp too. Before its premiere, she said, she had never taken a bow. When she was handed a bouquet of flowers during the curtain call, she threw it back.
This season American Ballet Theater presents the company premiere of “Deuce Coupe,” part of the “Tharp Trio” program (May 30-June 4) that also includes “The Brahms-Haydn Variations” and “In the Upper Room.” “Deuce Coupe” melds styles, but never loses its underlying groove. It’s wild and reckless, elegant and refined. Throughout, a ballerina calmly executes the ballet vocabulary in alphabetical order. The other dancers are like waves churning around her.
Even at a run-through in the studio, “Deuce Coupe” has an incandescence that has nothing to do with nostalgia. For “Catch a Wave,” the dancers slide dangerously, even defiantly across the floor; the solo, “Got to Know the Woman,” originated by Sara Rudner and now danced by Misty Copeland, is seductive and earthy, a statement of female strength. In “Don’t Go Near the Water,” eight women line the back of the stage and give way to improvisatory, twisting spurts of motion.
Tharp remains among the very few female choreographers to have had a lasting influence on ballet. Her Ballet Theater program — a retrospective of sorts — shows how she integrated modern dance into the ballet vernacular (“Deuce Coupe”) and then expanded that mission (“In the Upper Room”) and, finally, made the two forms into a seamless new movement language (“The Brahms-Haydn Variations”).
Recently, Tharp and Rudner sat down with Isabella Boylston and Copeland, the dancers performing their original parts in “Deuce Coupe,” at Ballet Theater’s studios to talk about the revival. It was lively — on occasion, their voices tangled together as they spoke over one another — but certain points became clear: How important is it to work with the artist who actually created a ballet? Very. And how scary is it to step into the roles of two of the finest dancers of their generation, classical or otherwise? Ditto.
Boylston, in Tharp’s part, keeps falling. “That’s OK, you’re going for it,” Tharp told her. “I’ll have to teach you how to fall if you’re going to do that.”
She had more advice too: Boylston and Copeland should keep a spoon and peanut butter in their lockers — fast nourishment for brutal rehearsal schedules. More important, Tharp said, she wants them to realize that they “are now the experts” on “Deuce Coupe.” “It becomes you,” she said. “It’s not Sara anymore, it’s not me anymore, it’s you.”
And that is how a ballet is reborn.
What follows are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What do the ballets on the program have in common?
TWYLA THARP: The three pieces are actually about the same thing: What’s classical, what survives, what’s important and what’s going to last? That is the big question. Is your longevity there?
What was foremost on your mind in bringing back “Deuce Coupe”?
SARA RUDNER: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. I had to relearn my parts from the beginning, and things that were just so natural are like, how’d she do that? It was a lot of analytical work, but it really paid off, because we gave everybody a really firm basis from which to begin and then create their own phrasing and timing. But the framework is as solid as we could make it.
What has it been like to learn and dance “Deuce Coupe” so far?
ISABELLA BOYLSTON: After we learned the steps we got to watch a little bit [of archival video], and Twyla is such a force. I’m just watching this thinking there is literally no way I can re-create what she did, so I feel like it’s been very much like starting from scratch and very collaborative. I feel like I had a turning point in the past two runs where I hit another level. I think I was going from “Am I doing this right?” to “I’m doing it.”
Sara, talk about the “Woman” solo. How have you passed that along to Misty?
RUDNER: I danced as much as I could at the beginning with Misty. Physically, it was very exhausting for me. Getting on my feet and doing that movement over and over and over. Getting all the accuracies going on and what were the oppositional actions, where’s the head?
MISTY COPELAND: No matter what we were doing, I was always trying to find you in the studio — your eyes, because I wanted to be, “Is this right?” It just feels so real and authentic. The way we grew up hearing music and dancing — just in the club or something — is so much about your hips. There’s such a different way of moving in “Deuce Coupe.” It was so hard for me to articulate at first.
THARP: It’s the difference between something that’s truly sexy and something that’s manufactured sex, as in Madonna sex. It’s not Madonna sex — this is the real deal.
RUDNER: Has doing this dance infected your own dancing?
COPELAND: Absolutely. The human connection that we often overlook — no matter what style of dance we’re doing — is something that I’ve taken from this process. It can enrich an entire piece to acknowledge and relate to people and see them.
BOYLSTON: Also, it feels very adult to me.
THARP: Oh, this is getting good. Adult porn. No more kiddie porn.
BOYLSTON [to Copeland]: I love that you’re in heels for your “Woman” dance. I love that dance and Misty in it — she’s just so in her own world. It’s so cool. A woman in control of her body.
What has been the most difficult quality to get back?
RUDNER: I would say the underlying strength and ease, knowing where your weight is, having a strong leg — but also the upper body actually is working polyrhythmically. The head is going one way, and the arms are going another.
COPELAND: I’ve been working with a new teacher and trying to retrain myself, which is crazy. Twyla has been saying the same words to me for years, but now I can hear them: It doesn’t matter what type of movement I’m doing, the same rules apply. I think my natural instinct — when I’m not doing classical dance — is to be hunched over and not open, and so it’s been fascinating to be given the same exact corrections from Twyla in the movement in “Deuce Coupe.”
How would she correct you?
COPELAND: “Lift your back up. Put your shoulders down and stay open, hold your center, turnout. Make a decision!” [Laughs] And I think because we haven’t had that base in training with modern dance that it’s this idea of what we think it is, and then it becomes contrived.
THARP: It becomes an approximation of what modern dance is. But the reality is that a well-trained classical dancer can do it all. You just have to tell them what part to move.
BOYLSTON: The way Twyla throws herself onto the ground. She’s not afraid of going down.
THARP: The Graham technique has a lot of different approaches to falls, and I studied with Martha for a year and I studied in the studio for three years, so I knew a lot about falling. And also the clowns. I’m a clown. I have always been a clown, and I will always be a clown. Clowns are very close to God. They know how to get down.
BOYLSTON: Oh my God. Is that why you picked me to do your part?
THARP: Partially, yes! I knew you had it in you. But I’m still waiting. I’m still waiting for the [Buster] Keaton to get out, but I know that you can do it.
Do you think this ballet has changed you?
COPELAND: [Firmly]: Yes. It couldn’t be more perfect timing in my career and my life to be able to absorb this information, or just have an understanding or acceptance of myself about what I want to be and what I’m capable of.
THARP: It’s always about creating artists, right? About creating the possibility for somebody to become an artist. Not simply a dancer. There’s nothing the matter with dancers. They’re great, and some of them are phenomenal athletes, but an artist is a person who thinks for themselves, uses what they have that they recognize and is willing to take their own chances. That’s the person that we want to see develop in the studio.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.