Twyla’s new take on the narrative ballet

Twyla Tharp is one of the great stayers of the dance world.

Sometimes harshly criticised for her most recent work, she remains buoyant, inventive and optimistic.

And that’s even more impressive considering her age, 70, and gender.

There are so few female choreographers and furthermore, hardly any who are working in the field of narrative ballet – her new direction.

This week, in an interview with The New York Times, Tharp conceded that the representational approach to ballet “has been in the doghouse for a while.

“There’s the tradition of the 19th-century ballets, and the 20th century has had a difficult time with that tradition. And it’s had a difficult time with many components of the Romantic imagination because of modernism.

“It’s not a good name for a way of thinking about aesthetics, but much of the grandeur of the Romantic imagination was dismantled by the 20th century. I think that it warrants revisitation.

“Give me a nice 20-count theme, and I can keep you happy for quite a while but it’s not the only way to communicate.”

As she told the writer, Gia Kourlas, “I’m not satisfied sitting in just the world of abstract work”.

Tharp’s new work, The Princess and the Goblin, is based on George MacDonald’s 19th century tale and was commissioned jointly by the Atlanta Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It will premiere this week in Atlanta.

Hindered by clunky librettos, narrative ballets have struggled to succeed in recent times, most notably with the disastrous Ocean’s Kingdom at New York City Ballet.

Kourlas quotes Lynn Garafola, professor of dance at Barnard College who said “I think many choreographers are approaching it almost as a marketing proposition: we need a big ballet because audiences like stories.”

They do, just as the titles Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Romeo & Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty will ensure full houses no matter how much the traditional narratives are pulled apart and re-made.

Alexei Ratmansky is the man always labelled the saviour of narrative ballets and this must be quite a weight on his shoulders.

Mentioned less often is John Neumeier, the choreographer and artistic director of Hamburg Ballet who has choreographed literally dozens of narrative ballets for his company, most recently Lilliom, based on the play by Ferenc Molnar which also inspired the musical Carousel.

Neumeier is intellectually rigorous and endlessly creative yet he is not always held in high regard by London dance writers as I recently discovered during an informal chat to a group of them at the National Dance Awards.

When I mentioned my recent visit to the Hamburg Ballet, and that I had seen Neumeier’s The Dream, one prominent writer said “why would we want that when we’ve got Ashton’s Midsummer Night’s Dream?”

Right, what about Neumeier’s La Dame aux Camélias? No, the writer replied, “we’ve got Marguerite and Armand”.

This kind of insularity is understandable perhaps, but more frustrating was the reaction of another well known, elderly dance writer (not Clement Crisp), who simply raised his eyebrows then grimaced at the very mention of the word Neumeier, (in much the same way as UK critics have ridiculed the work of Jiri Kylian.)

The London critics concentrate on Neumeier’s choreography rather than the narratives of his ballets, as no matter how supercilious the writers are, they can hardly criticise his narrative invention.

In general, though, there is of course a problem with so-called story ballets and it usually lies in a libretto that is so often needlessly complex.

As Tharp said: “I think that needing to translate into words to tell the story of a ballet is a problem. The ballet needs to tell its own story in such a way it can be received without having to be translated into language”.

Bring on the dramaturgs!

Tharp, though, isn’t using one for her new work.

She has put a strong woman as the focal point for her new work – the young and determined Princess Irene.

“You can base a ballet on a great male dancer who’s the hero of the adventure, but I thought it was time to give a woman centre stage, especially in the world of the ballet where women in point shoes have been held up and supported or allowed to be very fragile and vulnerable, and this has been a portion of their appeal,” Tharp said.

“I do think a powerful female figure should be valid in the ballet world.” She raised an eyebrow, adding, “Don’t you?”

I hear Bronislava Nijinska cheering from her grave.

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Twyla Tharp rehearses The Princess and the Goblin, photo © Kim Kenney

Twyla Tharp at the curtain call for the Broadway opening of Come Fly Away, March 25, 2010, photo ©Tristan Fuge