She’s Done It Her Way

gottleib article She’s Done It Her WayHere’s what you have to keep in mind: Twyla Tharp’s wonderful Nine Sinatra Songs and Sinatra Suite are ballets; her new Come Fly Away is a Broadway musical. And when she appears to be recycling famous passages from the past, she’s actually reinventing them to serve her latest ambitions. “That’s Life” in the context of Sinatra Songs is a part-comic, part-rueful exhilarating skirmish between the sexes; in its new context, it’s total war. That’s not only life, it’s the difference between ballet and Broadway: On the stage of the Marquis Theater, everything’s at stake.

Come Fly Away is Tharp’s most daring assault on success—it might just as well have been called Go for Broke. That she’s mostly succeeded is not a miracle—Tharp has never depended on the kindness of strangers, not even Heavenly ones; it’s the result of a formidable mind and talent, an implacable determination, and exhaustive and exhausting hard work. She plainly knew what she wanted, and went all-out to achieve it.

Why has she worked again and again with the music of Frank Sinatra? Because, obviously, she loves it, but also because Sinatra’s musical intelligence so happily complements her own: He sings it the way she feels it. But this time she’s stepped out on him. Yes, some of the dance numbers are set to un-retouched recordings, but this time round she’s added a 17-piece (superb) band as well as a terrific “featured vocalist,” Hilary Gardner, to chime in on occasion; to embroider, to amplify. This sounds as if it should be awful, but it works perfectly, both as a change of tone and as helping to make the whole show more present, more current. At times I wished Gardner were down on the floor of the nightclub rather than up on the bandstand with her fellow musicians.

She plainly knew what she wanted, and went all-out to achieve it.

Tharp has handled these musical interventions brilliantly, honoring Sinatra even as she encroaches on him. Yet though he dominates everything—at the end, his image is up there in lights—Come Fly Away is less “about” him than the earlier Sinatra ballets are. The subject of this show is show-dancing (too rarely slow show-dancing). It’s about Tharp pushing her dancers to the max. And it’s about her persuading her audience that a full evening of dance can hold them without a story as such—with only a loose situation to bind everything together.

She places us in a retro nightclub, on the floor of which four central couples act out their flirtations, fantasies, passions and aggressions, drifting in and out, confronting each other, challenging each other, submitting to each other, as they change partners—and dance. Yes, the individual characters have names and a certain limited specificity, but they don’t have a narrative, and they don’t reach resolution. This is life, Tharp tells us, this exciting but unresolvable—and, ultimately, impersonal—striving for permanent connection.

The dancers, as in all Tharp creations, are beyond criticism. She has always loved dancers, identified and championed their talent, and presented them with respect to their egos, not hers. And in this case her dancers constitue the narrative; Come Fly Away is about them, not their roles—in a way, what story she provides is almost a distraction.

To single out Holley Farmer first is not only to honor her beauty and talent but to salute her return to us after her ugly dismissal from the Merce Cunningham company. As befits a Cunningham dancer, she brings a stillness and centeredness to the proceedings that are welcome in the midst of all the tumult. But that’s not to play down the amazing electric charge of Tharp regulars like John Selya, Keith Roberts, Matthew Stockwell Dibble and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges (the busboy), all of whom are galvanizing, heart-stopping presences. And then there’s the star turn of Karine Plantadit, center stage and with an avidity that transcends even that of Tharp herself in her dancing days. Plantadit eats up both the stage and her partners, and tries to eat up the audience, too. She’s extraordinary in her attack, her looks, her legs, her appetite, but I wish she’d take it all down a peg or two—at times she becomes an assault rather than an excitement. Push doesn’t always have to come to shove.

Come Fly Away’s clangorous, in-your-face stance not only suits Tharp’s temperament but reflects her sense of what it would take to capture Broadway with an all-dance show. And she’s been proven right: By the end of the double climax of “My Way” and “New York”—to say nothing of “All the Way”—the audience is on its feet bravoing. Dance purists may have reservations; theater people will be celebrating. Tharp has always pushed no one as hard as she’s pushed herself, and if on occasion she’s gone too far or down the wrong path, so what? She picks herself up, dusts herself off and pushes all over again. This time push has come to stay.

rgottlieb@observer.com