A lot of nonsense has been written about the choreographer Twyla Tharp and her hit Broadway show, Movin’ Out, since it opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on October 24. She’s been called “the high priestess of modern dance” on CBS’s Sunday Morning and a pop psychologist in The New Yorker.
Apart from her modern-dance works from 1965 to 1973 and a misguided foray into avant-garde mime-dance (the unwatchable The Catherine Wheel of 1981, set to original music by David Byrne), Tharp, who trained in ballet, has stuck to ballets. These include, for the Joffrey Ballet, Deuce Coupe (set to the songs of the Beach Boys), and for Baryshnikov and other principals at American Ballet Theatre, Push Comes to Shove (set to Haydn) and Little Ballet (set to Glazunov). And like her mentors, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, Tharp wouldn’t give psychology the time of day. As they did, she believes that ballet can express anything: This plastic art molds movement and form from nature (everyday or quickly recognizable gestures–even kids’ make-believe) and ballet technique (a vocabulary that allows, via turnout, the widest-ranging expression of the body, and that subsumes stage acting, folk and anyvernacular dance) to state the emotions and story line, not explain them through mime, whose sole, tedious purpose is to mimic behavior and thus, by extension, comment on it–i.e., psychologize. There is, thankfully, no mime, or “psychology,” whatsoever in Movin’ Out.
The show, viewed in November and based loosely on twenty-seven Billy Joel songs that were performed better than Joel by Michael Cavanaugh and a smashing rock band elevated above the stage on a platform, has been subjected to boring classification on CBS (“a musical unlike any other”) and in New York magazine (“a hybrid that defies all categories”). For the record, in my opinion, it’s a two-act, full-length ballet that happens to be on Broadway: Joel’s songs are too short for Tharp, who also conceived and directed the show, to build any narrative from. She puts so much emotionally expressive, thrilling dancing on the stage, performed by her ballet-trained troupe, Twyla Tharp Dance, that the audience is riveted by the unfolding story they see, and only hears the danceable beat. Cavanaugh might as well be singing in a foreign language. Tharp is not acting out the lyrics on stage, as one commentator intoned: She’s merely taken the names, the vague, early 1960s Long Island setting and the initial ages (in Act One they’re teenagers) of her main characters from four Joel songs: “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” “Movin’ Out,” “Why, Judy, Why” and “James.” From these spare songs, Tharp has fashioned a resonant, mythic story about Eddie (performed by the Baryshnikovian John Selya), his girlfriend Brenda (knock-’em-dead Elizabeth Parkinson), Tony (the plangent virtuoso Keith Roberts), Judy (the sylphlike Ashley Tuttle) and her fiancé, James (the danseur noble Benjamin Bowman). The dancers are all superb actors, which is what you would expect from these former principals of American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet. Tharp imagines and tells us the characters’ story over the next two decades entirely in balletic terms, with frequent costume changes and some notable props, including a classic Ford Mustang, billowing fumes, that rolls onto the stage. Brenda and Eddie split up, and Brenda hurls her ring from the band’s raised platform to the stage floor; Tony goes after Brenda with, initially, no success. James and Judy are truly in love, and it’s not saccharine; the Vietnam War snatches the boys away and leaves the girls guilt-ridden and bitter. In Vietnam James is killed in combat and Eddie goes mad. Back home Brenda loses herself in loose living and go-go dancing. Judy, grief-struck, dresses in black, dons a black veil and black toe shoes, and sets about bedeviling the men in Eddie’s equally guilt-ridden dreams and again when, as battered Vietnam vets, the men return for James’s military funeral. The men are transformed, and so are the women. They all feel like strangers to each other and to themselves: For escape, Eddie turns to hard drugs and meaningless, exotic S&M sex. Gradually, into the late 1970s now, they get back together, Eddie gets clean, Judy forgives and Brenda and Tony fight, then find each other: Their love is exalted; it’s both physical and spiritual. Near the end, amid champagne popping, frenzied dancing by the whole company (minus James) with hints of 1960s popular dancing and cheerleading that we saw at the beginning, and Eddie turning into a whirling dervish of quintuple pirouettes, sky-high leaps and breakdancing on his hands, Eddie suddenly steps up to front center and faces the audience, as if to say, Where do I (and the audience) go from here? It’s a chilling moment of apotheosis.
And at that moment and in that stance, Eddie is Albrecht at the finale of the most famous ballet ever made, Giselle. I was convinced then that my earlier impressions of Giselle throughout Movin’ Out were correct: Just as Jerome Robbins had retold Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (itself probably based on legend) in his 1957 hit musical West Side Story, Tharp, I believe, based her ballet on, and gave it all the gravitas of, the Romantic Giselle (1841). The updating of classic, or mythic, stories can achieve grandeur if it ingeniously keys in the particulars of the period to what’s on the audience’s mind at the performance without betraying the universality of the original story’s emotional truths: Timing is everything. Juvenile delinquency and race relations were the hot topics of the baby-boomer 1950s, and Robbins’s genius was to turn the Montagues and the Capulets into rival white and Puerto Rican New York gangs. In our post-9/11 culture, and with war looming on the horizon, Tharp reminds us that history is doomed to repeat itself and plunges us back to the verging-on-Vietnam 1960s. (She even gives a little nod to Robbins in the opening scenes by having the boys taunt a cop, as in West Side Story‘s “Officer Krupke” number.) Giselle‘s Romantic sensibility and running of the emotional gamut are all here: innocence, love, loss of innocence, loss of love, betrayal, madness, anger, base jealousy, death, grief, revenge, dancing as exaltation, forgiveness, disillusionment, transformation and apotheosis. Instead of not giving away the story, I’ve decided not to give away the dancing. Suffice it to say that Tharp has brought men back to ballet and ballet back to Broadway.