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Pittsburgh Ballet opens with American dance icon Twyla Tharp

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Caitlin Peabody, left, and Gabrielle Thurlow for the Twyla Tharp ballet Wednesday, October 16, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Caitlin Peabody, left, and Gabrielle Thurlow for the Twyla Tharp ballet Wednesday, October 16, 2013.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Alejandro Diaz and Elysa Hotchkiss for the upcoming Twyla Tharp ballets Wednesday, October 16, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Alejandro Diaz and Elysa Hotchkiss for the upcoming Twyla Tharp ballets Wednesday, October 16, 2013.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre' new soloist Yoshiaki Nakano.
Nicholas Coppula
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre' new soloist Yoshiaki Nakano.
Twyla Tharp as photographed by Richard Avedon
The Richard Avedon Foundation
Twyla Tharp as photographed by Richard Avedon

Ballet seasons often begin with classics, familiar and beloved, such as “The Sleeping Beauty” or “Coppelia.” But Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is taking a different turn to open its 44th season by presenting two contemporary works by the American dance icon Twyla Tharp.

The dancers couldn't be happier.

“I love getting the chance to do Tharp, something we don't do too often,” soloist Elyssa Hotchkiss says. “It's a different kind of movement. I feel you can let loose and feel the music more often than some other ballets. It's a chance to express everything you have in you.”

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present “An Evening of Twyla Tharp” from Oct. 25 to 27 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The program is “In the Upper Room” and “Nine Sinatra Songs.”

Tharp, who formed her first company in 1965, is among the most frequently honored artists of our time, including the MacArthur Foundation genius award, the National Medal of the Arts, and a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for choreography for the 2002 musical “Movin' Out.”

She also has collaborated on major films, such as “Hair,” “Ragtime,” “Amadeus” and “White Nights,” and created dance for television.

The two works the company is performing date from the 1980s. “In the Upper Room” was first performed in 1986, “Nine Sinatra Songs” in October 1982. The ballet performed them in April 2010 and March 2006, respectively.

“They have completely different qualities and make a wonderful program. It's a vehicle and showcase for this company,” says Shelley Washington, who has prepared the ballet's dancers for opening night.

“‘Upper Room' is physically really challenging stamina-wise. ‘Sinatra' is challenging because of the shoes, the heels the women wear. I was an original dancer in both,” Washington says. “We learned ‘Sinatra' in jazz shoes at the time. I was 28 and the youngest in the company. Then, we put on the costumes and shoes, and it changed. You don't have the same power to leap in heels and a dress.”

Washington says the dancers have worked very hard in rehearsal and really put their heart into it.

“There's tremendous group energy and spirit. I like that. I thrive on that,” she says. “It's been quite wonderful to be me and watch the dancers grow in front of my very eyes. I imagine it's like a baby taking first steps or saying their first words. I see that in the dancers in the way they take charge of it and carry the other dancers with camaraderie. It's been a great experience.”

Care with costumes

Costumier Janet Campbell says “Sinatra Songs” features dressy evening wear, not formal attire. The original couture designs were by Oscar de la Renta.

“We made our own costumes a few years ago so we would have a set,” she says. “We know we have to maintain it, so we cleaned and washed the silk fabric before we built each costume.”

Campbell says she used to believe that silk, like feathers, should never get wet, but then she remembered that feathers come from birds and get wet all the time.

After washing the silk by hand and air drying it, which produces some shrinkage, the fabric is cut into the needed pieces. The ballet worked from renderings of the costumes but without patterns.

The costumes for “Upper Room” by Norma Kamali are much more causal looking, Campbell says.

“They're a silk fabric we actually wove for the piece: light gray stripe and navy blue stripe over a red leotard for the ‘stompers.' It's very interesting and more casual looking — like striped silk pajamas,” she says. “The other group of dancers, ballet people, wear pleated skirts and, for the boys, red pants.”

Washington's keen eye extends to the costumes. It was easy for Campbell to slightly shorten the dresses, but the reservation that the earrings were too small turned out to be solved while Campbell was off duty.

“I was at my nephew's wedding, which took place at the Zenith antique store on the South Side,” Campbell says. “There I found all the earrings I needed, great big sparkling earrings, like from 1984.”

Dancers have freedom

Tharp's choreography is built on different movements and different sensibilities than older ballets.

“In a classical variation, you want turns to be precise, but with Twyla Tharp, you can give your own interpretation. It's more about the movement's quality, more about dancing free than about a certain specific step,” says Gabrielle Thurlow, a member of the corps de ballet.

She says she likes both ballets. “Upper Room's” appeal is in its intensity and stamina. In it, Thurlow dances with Caitlin Peabody, doing everything the same.

“For ‘Sinatra,' it's kind of the opposite feeling,” Thurlow says. “I can slow down and still have my partner but not doing the exact same movement, because we're acting as a couple.”

Her comment brings to mind a famous quote about Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire: “Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards ... and in high heels.”

Thurlow says Washington told the dancers the quote is one of Tharp's favorites.

Dancers have their own favorite moments in the two ballets.

“Shelley Washington has been coaching us to draw out the personalities she remembers when these were first performed,” Alejandro Diaz says. “She took her time casting and finding the personalities that fit. I'm really enjoying ‘Strangers in the Night,' because it's true to my nature and how I dance — very passionate, yet you have to be reserved at times because you're strangers being introduced. But there's tension there.”

Hotchkiss, his partner for the number, also loves “Strangers in the Night.”

“I think it's the ultimate love story about two people meeting by chance, falling in love at first sight and realizing they can't live without each other for the rest of their lives. I love dancing it with Alejandro,” she says. “We have good chemistry together. It's nice to dance with someone you really trust.”

New soloist

Yoshiaki Nakano will make his debut as a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre soloist in “An Evening with Twyla Tharp.” He's been a member of the corps de ballet for four years.

“Yoshi has always been a star in his own right,” artistic director Terrance Orr said in a prepared statement. “He's really coming into full maturity as an artist, and I'm looking forward to giving audiences an opportunity to see more of his talents this season.”

Nakano's early training was at the Elite Ballet School in Osaka, Japan. He continued his studies at San Francisco Ballet School and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's graduate program.

He won the gold medal in the men's senior group at the 2013 Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition and the silver medal at the 2010 World Ballet Competition in Orlando, Fla.

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