Twyla Tharp’s Premiere Week: The Stage Ship Sails

Panorama in Hurky’s Sweet Shop, Dallas, Texas; Charles Santos's face at right.

Twyla Tharp is writing about rehearsing, touring and creating new work, 50 years after her first dance concert.

DALLAS — The company and I travel here to put “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie” onstage. Once costumes and scenics have been added, and all light cues set, these production elements will travel with the ballets for the balance of our 10-week tour.

Credit...Twyla Tharp

Too Much Sugar

Sunday, Sept. 13

12:15 p.m. On the flight to Dallas I discuss cues and concept with Jim Ingalls, our lighting designer, and set Tuesday’s schedule with Jessie Ksanznak, our stage manager.

4:45 p.m. I go out with Charles Santos, the Dallas commissioning partner, for early dinner. The Winspear Opera House in Dallas is one of five theaters helping to fund the production costs of the evening, the others being in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and New York. Knowing that Charles’s astronomical theater and crew costs have been negotiated against many promotional appearances, I fail to resist one huge piece of cherry pie and secondary bites of chocolate cake.

The Race Begins

Monday, Sept. 14

9:30 a.m. Coming onstage, I enter its dark space with both a sense of adventure and religious awe. A show is a journey and the prototypical stage a boat. Ropes control overhead pipes that bring lights and scenery down. Because sailors whistle to operate a boat’s booms and jibs, whistling on a stage is considered bad luck. The wrong tune could land a counterweight sandbag on your head.

The other stage prototype I know is the platform itself, which refers to the altar used in the sacrifice of beasts. “Tragedy” comes from the Greek “tragos,” or goat, and the connection here is the symbolic substitution of a hero’s demise told in a stage story for the sacrifice of a goat to the gods. Goats were expensive. So are dances.

And, of course, through the finality associated with hangings, rope has a sense of danger. All in all, a stage is a place for a journey best undertaken with careful, controlled behavior.

1 p.m. Meet and greet theater patrons for lunch at the Winspear. I assure them they are doing good deeds, but do not eat. This is followed by:

2:30 p.m. Live 30-minute radio interview with a PBS affiliate.

3:15 p.m. Half-hour Q&A with audience at radio taping.

3:15 p.m. Company flight lands at Dallas Airport.

4 p.m. I return to the stage. Crew is on schedule.

Big News — No Color

Tuesday, Sept. 15

8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The crew continues to mount and focus all lighting instruments on pipes. Santo Loquasto, my scenic and wardrobe collaborator of many years, has arrived and continues to work with costumes, which have been shipped from New York.

11 a.m. We start the tech rehearsal with the dancers in costume for the Bach piece, “Preludes and Fugues.”

11:15 a.m. Jim, Santo and I discuss the color palette Jim wants for the ballet. I feel that any color will distract from the costumes, which are beige for the men and subdued colors for the ladies.

12 p.m. We decide to do the Bach with no color. Lighting changes will be accomplished through intensity alone. With the dancers, we expand the ballet’s space in order to accommodate an additional two feet on either side of center, as well as the exits through wings that we did not have in studio rehearsals. We light first half of the piece before lunch. By now it is clear that the no-color choice is putting the focus on the dancing. Simplicity is the goal with this work.

1 p.m. Interview with a local writer. Lunch. Three dozen cookies (chocolate chip, cinnamon swirl, peanut butter) delivered backstage from patron at yesterday’s lunch. I eat four and manage to pass the rest around. Cookies really, really good. Sugar really, really bad.

2 p.m. We push on lighting through the second half of Bach: three trios, two quartets, first circle, second death, echo, triple canon, frog, fugue, football, yoga, stroll, finale, last circle. Dancers have some trouble with bright lights and many exits require adjusting.

6 p.m. We leave the Bach and bring in the red curtain that is the backdrop for the fanfare that precedes ”Yowzie.” It is a mess – wrinkled, proportions ungainly, light spills, dancers’ silhouettes fuzzy. Still it is good to get the red drop in and to see the problems.

7 p.m. We stop for the evening. Rather than break for dinner and then come back to work for three more hours I decide not to exhaust the dancers and crew. We do not go into overtime.

9 p.m. I eat a bad hotel salad and am rude to the waitress. I am extremely concerned about the red drop in ”Yowzie.” I think of cutting the red fanfare. Realize some shadows from dancers behind the curtain might help the silhouettes in front.

10 p.m. A sleepless night of choreographing shadows.

Red Survives

Wednesday, Sept. 16

8 a.m. Sign 80 copies of “The Creative Habit” for the presenter.

9 a.m. Deal with red curtain issues, prepare for dancers. Santo fixes the curtain in two moves, lowering the masking to change proportions and adding two offstage rovers to augment shadows. He is a master.

9:45 a.m. I snag off Reed Tankersley and Savannah Lowery before class and update them on their new shadow crosses.

10 a.m. Company class.

11 a.m. to 1 p.m. “Yowzie” tech redeems red curtain. Color deepened, silhouettes crisper, shadows appropriately muted. Teching is on track. Hope not to go into overtime again tonight for everyone’s sake.

1 p.m. Press conference and interviews. Got the air-conditioning OFF in my dressing room. Hope today’s press will be reflected in box office.

2 p.m. TV crews in the theater to film rehearsal onstage.

2-5 p.m. Continue with tech/spacing onstage. Jim’s lights – a gold/amber tinge — and Santo’s costumes are wildly complementary. We get through all of “Yowzie” blocking and lighting. Wardrobe coming together. Again we do not go into overtime. Yahoo.

Let’s Dance

Thursday, Sept. 17

8:15 a.m. In theater. Done 90 minutes in gym. Earrings on/no makeup: partial image control. Breakfast three hardboiled eggs off buffet ($9) and grapefruit I wheedled out of maître d’ at last night’s trendy dinner place. Meet with Rob Berretta, our agent who is with us through the premiere.

9:15 a.m. Strategize the downstage right exit of Rika Okamoto (in the form of a godlike gorilla) with Jessie, the stage manager. Rika is lifted by two guys, spotted by two catchers, and four girls mimic the weight of her throne. We schedule all exiting lifts to be done before run.

9:30 a.m. Dancers arrive to prepare for 10 a.m. class. I move one “Bach” exit forward one and a half seconds and need to inform Jessie, who is calling light and sound cues at this point. Show Kaitlyn Gilliland and Ronnie Todorowski cue on studio video. A matter of one chasse.

10 a.m. Congratulations emails starting to arrive — used to be flowers squeezing you out of dressing room. Meaningless tradition, either way, as it is a bit like gladiolas at a funeral. Only serves to create nerves and useless questions: How will we do? Best just keep your nose to the grindstone. Workworkwork.

11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Run Bach straight out of gate in wardrobe with lights. Dancers have not really danced since arriving so need to get them up today for sure. First time we have seen all Bach light cues with out stopping and they go smoothly. Dancers work well, adjusting well to some extremely bright light cues. A couple of exits still a bit challenging in the wing space.

1 p.m. Lunch

2 to 5 p.m. Continue with tech/spacing onstage. Get through all of ”Yowzie” with its 60 called scene cues, 20 follow spot cues, 8-10 interior swipes and two bally-hos. Dancers solid. Team and crew have been terrific. We could come back after dinner to run whole show, but I gamble to save dancers and crew and let it go with just one complete no-stop run on Friday afternoon. My gut is that both pieces are solid and that back to back the contrast in their production style will be very effective.

The Launch

Friday, Sept. 18

8 a.m. to noon I watch rehearsal video from Thursday for notes session – very few and those about spacing.

Having had many premiere days, I ask myself, What do I really expect to see in tonight’s premiere? Perfection? I don’t think so. While the dancers are extraordinarily well rehearsed, this is a first show and the space, the clothes, the lights, the sense of watchers are new. I want a clean show, not pushed, leading to a stronger second show. As for the audience, it is an opening-night crowd. These tend to be overdressed and come more to be seen than to see. As for me? I remind myself that it is unlikely the heavens will part and God himself descend to shake my hand, telling me what a good job I have done.

10 a.m. I work hard to convince Santo and Jim to come onstage for the curtain call. After much yelling and screaming this is accomplished.

11:30 a.m. Company class

1 to 5 p.m. Dress rehearsal/final notes

5 p.m. Mop the stage and preshow checks

6 to 7 p.m. Dinner

6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dancers warm up onstage

7:30 p.m. Meet and greet with donors in a private room across from the green room. Other commissioning partners, from Chicago, Washington and New York City, have flown in for the premiere.

8 p.m. Curtain

9:30 p.m. How did it all go? Pretty much as expected. Dancers, both veterans and newcomers were excellent; production went extremely well. Solid show with the exception of crew accidentally locking Santo and Jim out from backstage resulting in my spending half the curtain call looking for them off stage. Audience was flat during the first fanfare and through first four or so sections of Bach and then decided a polite response was called for. Basically, no one had told them yet what to think about a long solo piano piece with discreet production. Small dose of humor; small amount of stuntage, its virtuosity designed not to be noticed. “Yowzie,” however, was clearly a hit from the first moment. Color, loud band music, standard gladiator stuff (if somewhat tweaked), stunts, gags, special effects. Central characters whose story could be followed. Audience reaction all as expected, I need to remind myself, this is just who we are.

9:45 p.m. Post performance Q&A. I am a bit shell shocked finally seeing these pieces on stage after two years. I factor my own disappointment with the curtain call fiasco and the opening night response into an attempt to gauge how we have actually done. However, a pro, I pop out in front of the curtain to addres the audience members who have stayed behind with questions. Again as expected these are mostly standard gossipy fare having nothing whatsoever to do with what they had just seen: What was it like to work with Baryshnikov and Hines (like being a referee); which came first music or dance (both came first together); toughest job you ever took (being a mother).

10:30 p.m. Reminding myself God had not been scheduled to appear with crowning wreath, that the audience had been pretty much as expected, that the show was really solid, and that we have all done a very good job, I still leave the theater deflated and exhausted, an understandable postpartum moment.

The Real Deal

Saturday Sept. 19

9:30 p.m. And Saturday’s show? Audience connected from end of first fanfare with intelligent applause for each of the Bach sections. Dancers, without a three-hour afternoon tech, were more at home and comfortable with the audience. A solid and genuine standing ovation on the “Yowzie” curtain. A better time was had by all I would say. Tomorrow, the boat docks in Santa Fe.

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