Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe and The Joffrey

By Sheri Candler

A ballet collaboration that is covered in the film is Tharp’s Deuce Coupe which premiered on February 8, 1973 and is considered to be the first “crossover” ballet.

During the 1960s, Tharp had been working hard to make a name for herself in the dance world. She graduated with an art history degree from Barnard College in 1963; she studied under Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and, upon graduation, she joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company, staying for 6 years before founding her own company.  In her early years,  Tharp preferred to her work unaccompanied by music and only danced by women. Her successful early pieces include The One Hundreds, Eight Jelly Rolls (this piece was later taped for broadcast by the BBC) and The Bix Pieces using the music of jazz musician and composer Bix Beiderbecke. Robert Joffrey saw a restaging of The Bix Pieces, at Gerald Arpino’s urging,  when it was on the same program with a Joffrey II performance at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 1972. Impressed, he offered Tharp a commission.

Realizing this opportunity could open up a new world for her and her company, she worked tirelessly on creating a piece that would utilize the Joffrey company’s talent, but garner some mainstream success that would change her financial fortunes. Robert Joffrey too needed a box office hit, so the pressure was on.

A Beatles fan, Tharp initially thought about setting the work to their music, but settled on the surf sounds of the West Coast and the music of the Beach Boys. Her acceptance was predicated on being able to use the modern dancers from her company and mixing them with the more classically trained dancers of the Joffrey and this presented problems for her and for the Joffrey dancers.

“I just wasn’t open enough in the beginning; I just was not. Twyla and her ladies were all doing this workshop and we’re dancing to music that I had grown up to. I remember I had to dance off the music and that just didn’t gel with me.  I just couldn’t quite do that. I wasn’t comfortable with working with Twyla and I think it was my first time working with someone that really would challenge you,” said Gary Chryst in an interview for the film.

In Anawalt’s book on the Joffrey Ballet, dancer Rebecca Wright recounts one rehearsal where things came to a head. “Twyla stood up and said, ‘Those of you in this room who do not want to do this work and do not like what I am doing, I really want you to leave. And I don’t want you to ever come back. And I won’t hold it against you because I know that my work is unusual. I am just telling you now, I’m giving you all your option to get the hell out of here.’ Three quarters of the room left.”

“I was originally going to be in Deuce Coupe, but I walked out,” laughed Christian Holder. “If Joffrey had said okay, there’s a piece by Twyla Tharp.  She is this fabulous new choreographer.  She has her own vision, her own technique, her own way of moving, just go with her, trust me. That would’ve been fine. But that didn’t happen.  I had no idea what was going on and the first five minute break, I picked up my dance bag and I trotted out of the studio.”

“Twyla Tharp knew what she wanted.  She was demanding, remote, very remote. I didn’t enjoy the experience.  She didn’t call me names or throw things at me, but I wasn’t used to people that were so bloodless in their approach to the art form. But how could you not respect it?  I mean there’s tremendous craft involved in Deuce Coupe.  There’s ingenuity, there’s all the positive things.  That’s a different question.  How did I feel about Twyla? Not so good.  How did I feel about Deuce Coupe?  I felt very good about Deuce Coupe.  I used to love to do the last section called Cuddle Up.  It was just great,” said Dermot Burke about his experience working with Tharp.

In addition to combining classical ballet with her own brand of modern technique and using the popular music of the Beach Boys, she had one last spark of inspiration while riding the subway home from rehearsal. Struck by watching young graffiti artists decorate walls and trains in the train yard, she hired 6 young graffiti writers to spray original works on 3 large rolls of paper during every performance. The rolls served as the stage set of the piece and were different every performance.

three large rolls of live sprayed graffiti served as the background for Deuce Coupe

Tharp’s site gives a good abstract on what the piece ultimately turned out to be.

“A lone, female ballet dancer calmly goes through the abc’s of the entire ballet vocabulary of technique. Around this white-clad, ‘cool’ dancer, two tiers of more ‘out-going’ dancers gather and perform (one in ballet’s regulation toes shoes or slippers and the other in Tharp’s familiar jazz oxfords). The music’s infectious good humor and animation inspire references to the pop/social dances of its era: the frug, the jerk, the swim, the monkey, as well as more formally theatrical arrangements for duets, trios and canons. With the women in bright, solid-color play-dresses and the men in vivid, loud-print shirts and pants, the whole evolves like a spontaneously arranged dance party.”

Here are 2 video pieces from Deuce Coupe:

Tharp would go on to create more pieces for the Joffrey, As Time Goes By also in 1973 and Deuce Coupe II in 1975.

“I think the impact that Deuce Coupe had on the world of dance was because the Beach Boys’ music was involved and for the first time audiences really saw what had been happening for a number of years, the fusion of modern contemporary dance and ballet.   Fusion work became okay because it had been given a stamp of good housekeeping.  That’s where dance was headed and it needed a work to break through that glass ceiling, so to speak, to say it’s okay to do this. That [work] was Deuce Coupe,” said Burke.

The outcome was sensational. The Saturday Review said “Deuce Coupe is the best thing to have happened to the Joffrey Ballet in a long time. It is also one of the best things to have happened to dance in America.” Robert Joffrey was lauded as discovering the next big thing in dance and Tharp went on to work with ABT and the mega ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov.

A further resource used in writing this post was the book Twyla Tharp: dancer and choreographer by James Robert Parish


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