Showcasing Heroes


The night after I saw Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, I wished I were back in the Richard Rodgers Theater watching it all over again, to be exhilarated by this bold choreographer’s vision of dancers as Olympians who, moving with beauty and complexity, define heaven for the rest of us. I’d had doubts. Narrative has never been Tharp’s strong suit. And here she was, fashioning a story out of tunes by one of our era’s finest rock songwriters, Billy Joel. The Chicago reviews were daunting, Tharp made astute changes, and, as one New York preview ended, the audience rose as if electrically lifted to cheer this . . . what? Dansical? Not too accurate, since Joel’s songs—beautifully delivered by singer-pianist Michael Cavanaugh and a powerhouse band—are the launching pad for Tharp’s story and provide the evening’s only words, igniting details that dancing—so good at emotional subtext—can’t deal with.

Tharp, who conceived, directed, and choreographed the show, has cobbled a classic tale of ordeal and redemption, choosing as heroes the 1960s blue-collar high school friends who inhabit a couple of Joel’s best early songs. John Selya and Elizabeth Parkinson are the Brenda and Eddie of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”; Keith Roberts is the Tony of “Anthony’s Song.” The triangle that develops among them is counterpointed by James (Benjamin Bowman) and Judy (Ashley Tuttle), whose love is deep and uncomplicated. Their hell is the Vietnam war, which kills James, leaves Judy bereft, spiritually maims Eddie and Tony, and turns Brenda into a desperate good-time girl. Eventually, those still living (and the town cop, Scott Wise) come together again in a zone of happiness where “a bottle of red, a bottle of white” with friends seems paradise enough.

Santo Loquasto’s ingenious scenic design facilitates the flow Tharp sets up. The musicians sit on stage-width metal scaffolding that works like an elevator; fences, nightclub bars, a red Ford Mustang, and something resembling a destroyed tank slide on and off. Marching soldiers, fun for our guys to admire and imitate when there’s not much going on in town, become a machine that sucks the three up and tosses them and the six ensemble men into plunging, vaulting, twitching carnage, along with Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and Donald Holder’s vivid lighting.

Act II is stronger, but throughout Tharp makes some terrifically expressive dances and telling encounters. (One misjudgment: Putting Ashley Tuttle on pointe makes Judy an alien in this world of complex, down-to-earth movers and tempts Tharp into such clichés as a wan, backward-bourréeing exit.) Her performers reward her in spades—Selya and Roberts are especially astonishing—giving not only sweat and tears and prowess, but the heart-deep intelligence of gristle, sinew, and bone. It isn’t the passing of time that heals these people, but dancing as redemption.

The playbill for American Ballet Theatre’s City Center season credited donors who sponsor certain principals’ performances. This smart financial thinking reaffirms that the company’s dancers are its treasures. The repertory displays their glitter in showy pas de deux and pieces like Stanton Welch’s 2001 Clear, a skillful, pleasing work that offers a banquet of stunning male marvels (David Hallberg is suddenly lustrous). However, ABT’s gems gleam in more subtle ways in three fastidiously coached revivals: The Garden of Villandry, Martha Clarke’s profound wisp of an Edwardian triangle; Jerome Robbins’s 1944 Fancy Free, staged by Jean-Pierre Frohlich; and Donald Mahler’s reconstruction of Antony Tudor’s 1870s-style café romp, Offenbach in the Underworld (Tudor’s sardonic 1954 response to the artifices of Léonide Massine’s Gaité Parisienne).

As important as seeing the company’s virtuosos spin and vault and stand around on one toe forever is seeing them and fine, less flashy performers (like Ethan Brown) explore other aspects of dancing. Ladies who essay Balanchinian clarity in Symphony in C also catfight on the sidelines of Offenbach and pull themselves together for a hilariously weary cancan. You can see such champions as Joaquin de Luz, Ethan Stiefel, and José Manuel Carreño, Fancy Free‘s sailors, swagger down an imaginary New York street, chew gum, and argue over girls.

Marcelo Gomes, a touchingly strong and elegant partner in classical ballets, is wonderful as a man losing everything in James Kudelka’s weird but rather fascinating new Sin and Tonic. To Edgar Meyer’s Violin Concerto, Angel Corella, a sparky winged Cupid, brings two drifting loners, Gomes and the exquisite Julie Kent, together, but has to counter horned twins (Craig Salstein and Carlos Lopez) whose every synchronized leap pulls the lovers deeper into stumbling drunkenness and despair, framed by five men who, hand in hand, form a wall of slow sustained movements.

Lar Lubovitch’s fine new . . . smile with my heart, set to Marvin Laird’s Fantasie on Themes by Richard Rodgers, celebrates the composer’s centennial with fluent, lyrical dancing imaginatively patterned in space beside an onstage bandstand. Robert Hill’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra is irrationally structured but captures the glittering intensity and moody quiet of Lowell Liebermann’s music in intense forays of challenging, high-wattage movement and a lovely, fragile pas de deux for Kent and Gomes. Speaking of irrational, why didn’t ABT just let Stanton Welch choreograph Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison? He made three of its six sections. Was it a marketing ploy to bring in Ann Reinking, Natalie Weir, and David Parsons? An anthology, if that’s what it was, deserves every contributor’s best efforts and a wise editor.

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