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Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Songs - ballet performances from Pennsylvania to Arizona

by Merilyn Jackson
March 11, 2005
Phoenix, AZ

Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Songs - ballet performances from Pennsylvania to Arizona

Merilyn Jackson
March 11, 2005

Phoenix, Arizona

Twyla Tharp's two ballroom dance-based works, her 1982 Nine Sinatra Songs and the earlier 1992 Sinatra Suite, have few variations between them. The numbers of the dancers, the songs and the titles are different. The choreography also seems more minimal in the later work; otherwise, I just can't see a reason for two such similar versions.

In just the last few months, though, both versions have popped up on at least a dozen companies in cities from London to Vancouver. And choreographer, Michael Smuin, of San Francisco's Smuin Ballet, has made a dance called "Fly Me To the Moon" also with many of the same famous standards. All uses of the songs are courtesy of The Frank Sinatra Foundation and Sinatra Enterprises.

A month ago, I saw Nine Sinatra Songs as a company premiere on The Pennsylvania Ballet, 23 years after its world premiere in Vancouver. More recently, I saw Sinatra Suite on Ballet Arizona. And these two fine American companies show how ballroom dance can become seamlessly uninterrupted movement when performed by dancers trained from early childhood.

Ballroom dancing, with its proscribed steps and dance phrases, can often look like the equivalent of painting by numbers. In addition, the over-top-costumes can look cheesy. Both of Tharp's versions have understated, flowing finery by Oscar de la Renta that gently say elegant, even "swelegant," if you recall Sinatra singing High Hopes.

Tharp, no doubt during her research of turn-of-the-century ballroom dancing styles when she choreographed the movie Ragtime, must have noted the disconnected and repetitive phrases of the dance styles. Tharp gives the dancers smooth liaisons between the phrases that richly emulsify the look of the dancing. Even when the phrases repeat, they do not appear like static photographs. The bend at the waist is deeper, the lift may be higher, the turns shortened halfway, so that the phrases either suggest a previous one or extend it.

In the Pennsylvania Ballet program, seven of the nine songs were for duets culled from among the company's best dancers, with the wonderful surprise of a guest appearance by former member, Francis Veyette, now with Kansas City Ballet. Veyette and newcomer from San Francisco Ballet, Julie Diana, danced like velvet-gloved old hands in Softly as I Leave You. Their limbs trailed like wisps of longing as they spun out their leave-taking. One lift stopped in mid-air as if to prolong the moment before parting.

In One More for My Baby (and One More for the Road), Thomas Baltrushunas played it so inebriated he kept dropping the ever-so-pliant, Arantxa Ochoa. Laura Bowman, turning and twisting in Philip Colucci arms with her body tilted on axis, proved that he and she were more than just pinch-cheek cute in Somethin' Stupid. And Amy Aldridge and David Krensing threw a suitable dollop of cynicism into their performance of That's Life. When all the couples came back out together for the finale, My Way, it was clear that each couple had a distinctive character, each doing it their way.

Michael Cook and Lisbet Companioni were the sole dancers in the six songs of Sinatra Suite for Ballet Arizona. They stepped off dreamily with Strangers in the Night and went on to engage in Tharp's signature runs, throws and horizontal body catches. In One More for My Baby, Cook soloed as a more anguished than comical drunk than Baltrushunas. His split-legged heel slides were cleaver-sharp, and his carriage like a toreador's. Rather than be off-kilter, he seemed to be showing he could hold his liquor, doing it his way. The couple danced well, but without much chemistry between them.

Tharp's conceit of having different couples dance each section in the original, worked best at giving each dance its own character.

As beautiful-to-watch dances, both versions have their place on the stage, but I wonder what inspires this spate of Sinatriana. Did some rights to the music just expire? Are the Sinatra Foundation and Enterprises running an "Old Blue Eyes" sale? Hard to say, but I'm glad that new generations of dance audiences are getting a glimpse of the lush life that Sinatra's era represents and hearing the music of a quintessentially American artist.


Astrit Zejnati and Nancy Crowley in Ballet Arizona's Sinatra Suite
Photo courtesy of Harrison Hurwitz



Pennsylvania Ballet's Meredith Reffner and James Ihde in the Company Premiere of Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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