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Leigh Witchel

John Rockwell's article in the NYT

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-->Permanent Link to Rockwell (sans Witchel) on "Soundcheck"

I hate having to revert to sports, but . . .

anyone remember how very well Michael Jordan's superlative basketball skills transferred to the baseball diamond? :ermm: By Rockwell's logic, Jordan should have been the MVP of his league! :dunno: And why don't Olympic decathaletes compete in each of the separate events? Because a decathalete is a generalist, and as a rule not likely to excel in more than one or two disciplines. So are the sprinters and long-jumpers guilty of miscegenation? And why didn't I think of this analogy sooner? :yahoo:

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The very least WNYC can do is schedule Leigh and Alexandra on another program. As a subscriber to the Station I will voice my complaint.

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Much simpler solution: Mr. Rockwell could always come HERE to Ballet Talk's (virtual) Radio Talk Show. Open 24/7. :)

Carbro, I used exactly the same baseball/basketball/Michael Jordan analogy in the first draft of the Crossover piece I just put up. (I cut about half the article because it was just too long). So I agree, I agree :)

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I thought the Schafer interview was terrible. I know there's supposed to be a degree of chumminess in these talks but this was bordering on the unprofessional. It was like overhearng two guys in a bar, not entirely sober. Schafer obviously has had Rockwell on the show many times; this kind of journalistic familiarity tends to breed a kind of contempt for the non-ininitiated, and Rockwell's references to the strangely absent ballet freaks were much less courteous than in his Times piece. Schafer should have protected him (and you) against this, also in the interest of the listeners, but he doesn't. He rather eggs Rockwell on.

I don't know why Rockwell opted for the miscegenation etc metaphor. It was a bad idea, with which he most likely would not have gotten away at les Times. But it was clearly premeditated, this 'I've got some big news, Hitler was wrong' [not an actual quote] was clearly intended to top the fun that already had been had with the disco segment.

(I suspect btw the reason why Leigh wasn't on the show is there were no less than three guests in the disco segment, which is kind of hard to follow for a blind listener, Schafer was getting guest names wrong, too; that's why the producer decided to make the ballet segment a little quieter, and not have Leigh over. The media are ruthless; the only thing that counts is listeners staying tuned in.)

You know, the thing is, Rockwell's point can be made, ballet is not a pure art. Balanchine wasn't just putting Petipa steps together in a new different order. He also imported moves from the 'lower' arts, a faster rhythm and some kind of showbizz glamor in his ensembles, as in the Symphony in C or Violin Cto finales. Those are half Broadway. Indeed, remember the way the Mariinsky people fought Virginia Zucchi as impure and vulgar, and then it turned out she was its biggest blessing. Look at what Nijinsky did. I could go on and on. I'll just name Hans van Manen as another great 'impure' ballet choreographer. I think some people are a little too eager to say ballet is going down the toilet, and now the ballet reviews are going the same way, too. No matter where you plug in in ballet history people have been saying "this is the end of good ballet". Of course the point to be made is Van Manen may use non-balletic moves, but he always uses exquisitely trained ballet dancers - only the best in the company.

However Schafer didn't challenge Rockwell to name a great example of the mongrelized ballet / dance / crossover that will last longer than one run; Rockwell doesn't seem to want to challenge himself to name some names of what he's really talking about; he's got his "I'm just a beat critic, I just report what's happening" excuse ready, and his rather loaded opening piece now is characterized as just a "clearing of the throat."

If Rockwell's saying there is a lot going on in lofts, but actually he's only going to watch and not write about it because it's actually not worth writing about, then I would say there's apparently not that much happening in those lofts. I mean Peter Jennings (is he still on?) doesn't open the news saying the breaking news is millions of people are sitting down to dinner as he speaks. We know that.

However, to go back to where this pretty much started. After clearing his metaphorical throat Rockwell's first two reviews were perfectly regular reviews of ballet shows, and I haven't seen a sudden keeling over in the Times towards obscure crossover loft experiments. So I think it looks like he's just doing his job, covering what the major ballet companies are dancing. I'm sure many will disagree with the way he looks at the shows and dancers, but that's what critics are for. If you agree a 100% there's no need anymore to go to the theatre, you can just read the paper instead.

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There may have been some confusion. 

I believe this to be a most remarkably charitable interpretation.

And the "miscegenation" crack is beyond the pale. What we're seeing far too often today is not the product of mixed race, but more like moon-calves, of legend the product of the illicit coupling of the cowherd with his charges.

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You know, the thing is, Rockwell's point can be made, ballet is not a pure art. Balanchine wasn't just putting Petipa steps together in a new different order. He also imported moves from the 'lower' arts, a faster rhythm and some kind of showbizz glamor in his ensembles, as in the Symphony in C or Violin Cto finales. Those are half Broadway.

Herman, I agree -- but this is where the confusion comes in. That's not crossover. That's borrowing from something else and grafting it on to a classical base. It's like a pot of chicken soup, and someone throws in some cabbage. It's still chicken soup. Balanchine borrowed from everything -- so did Ashton, so did Petipa, so, probably, did Noverre. Beauchamps borrowed from pigeons. But they borrowed movements and changed them, made them something else, in the same way classical music uses folk tunes. When those cowboy songs are in Dvorak's "New World" symphony, they're not cowbooy songs any more. They just lend flavor. Crossover is when someone from outside of ballet makes a dance, sometimes not even on the ballet dancers, but on his or her own dancers, and sets it on a ballet company. It doesn't use the material of ballet. It's having a chicken leg on one side of the plate and a hunk of cabbage on the other. And that's the distinction.

Editing to add: Re Balanchine's finales, you can see the same thing in the bits of "Excelsior" (Manzotti) that we have, and in Petipa. Whether they were borrowed from music hall, or the other way around, or both borrowed from something earlier is hard to tell at this point. The ending of the first act of Excelsior looks like a halftime show routine, with the ballerina marching, head and torso bent forward and arms swinging, leading her squad of ballet girls.

Deborah Jowitt, the long-time dance critic of the "Village Voice" who's also a (modern dance) choreographer has written about this in several essays; I quoted one of them in mine. It's not just those calcified "ballet freaks". The crossover trend was of great concern to the modern dance world as well.

Another of Rockwell's points, that the dance audience isn't as fragmented as the music audience -- well, I don't know the music audience. I've read articles about the way radio music is segmented, and there are distinctions among distinctions. I've never read surveys on this, so anything I have to say is anecdotal, but I've either known, or talked to, many, many people in the time I've been writing who say they have never, and would never, go to Dance Place (our small, local modern dance theater) and indeed, at DP and other similar venues, the audience is usually young people, with the only elders relatives of the dancers or critics. And I see very few of the local modern dance people at ballet performances -- some choreographers do attend. When I go to the few "ethnic" or folk dance performances, the audience seems drawn from the ethnic group of the company. there are some hard core dance fans that are interested in just about everything, but I don't think this is a general condition.

Edited by Alexandra

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John Rockwell may consider his first article “throat clearing”, but in this radio interview he chokes.

Equally offensive and defensive, Rockwell reminded me of a fighter climbing into an opponent–less ring: he looked a little silly swinging at the air. Shadow boxing has its uses, but one doesn’t throw the arms up in triumph at a non-existent knock-out. Look at the wall: the shadow seems to have also won.

I was shocked at his opening salvo, "Hitler was wrong." A call for a broad yet disciplined adherence to the classical aesthetic is in what way similar to Hitler's brutally forced policy of racial purity? Of course Hitler was wrong. But Mr. Rockwell is also wrong to so badly mistake the playing field this discussion is set in. It's like he showed up to play polo driving a tank. Talk about being overly defensive.

Next came “mongrelization”, with Schaefer, in a lap-se, as lap dog. Oh, swell: let's have symphonies begin hiring jazz players and ballet companies bring in tap dancers and why not feature untrained pop voices at the Met? Why not? Because these are disciplines as well as art forms, They take a life time of training. It is quite naïve to think that a blending of various forms of dance could strengthen any of the individual forms. In my 35 years of observation, I’d say it mostly weakens them. Ballet dancers are the greyhounds of the dance world. You don't ask them to herd sheep. Well, you can ask…but you’ll end up with a lot of dead sheep.

“Miscegenation”: Another bizarre twist of vocabulary. (Uttered quite frequently for some strange reason, as if this was a handle on the whole complex situation for him.) The man is certainly free to use whatever analogies he wants but what is this constant allusion to racial mixing? I find it either highly inappropriate or just not thought out on the level I would expect from the chief dance critic of the NYT.

In an earlier post, someone mentioned Clive Barnes. We in the theatre had to put up with Barnes’ wildly inconsistent NYT theatre reviews for years until he was relegated to forced cheerleading at a tabloid. This Rockwell situation reminds me of how Barnes, after the smash hit Hair, got on a crusade for integrating pop or rock into Broadway musicals. This agenda lasted a couple of years and resulted in some of the worst shows ever to darken a Broadway theater, most notably the back to back disasters Dude and Via Galactica. This foolish stance also resulted in the box office failures of some very worthy musicals because they did not mongrelize or miscegenate in accord with Mr. Barnes times or Times. And guess what? He eventually dropped the agenda and life went on. Quality mostly rose to the top. Junk mostly sunk.

I find Rockwell's first few reviews well written and appreciative. I don't expect, with his generalist background, to receive much elucidation on the finer points of dance, especially ballet. Happily, we have BalletAlert for that. I think he will not do much harm. I also think the Times could have done much better.

Watermill

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In case anyone is interested, here is a letter I sent to Mr. Rockwell--I deliberately didn't read other letters, so I don't know if this repeats any points. Mary

Dear Mr. Rockwell:

I am writing in response to your recent articles about cross-over dance, and would like to take issue with you on a few points.

It may be oversimplifying your original article, but you seem to imply that the lack of a past is a strength for dance, more specifically for ballet. First of all, ballet does have a past, and the strongest companies are those with firm roots in an academy. What it does not have is a regular system of notation, which makes it a much more fragile art, but I do not see that as a good thing. Based on what I see as your argument, drama would be in better shape if all we had were the 18th century revisions of Shakespeare, or opera stronger if we tried to recreate Handel based only on a few arias and some vague critical commentary. I think the ballet audience today is concerned that the great 20th century choreographers, like Massine, Fokine, Tudor, and even Ashton and to a lesser extent Balanchine, may go the way of St. Leon or Merrante. Even Petipa survives primarily in watered down or drastically retouched versions. We should be able to learn from this loss, and not repeat it.

Your use of Diaghilev as a stick to beat up on those who you feel are less than open-minded is to rely on a very weak weapon. Diaghilev was rooted in tradition—even at his most experimental, he had his dancers take Cecchetti classes, and possibly his most influential production was his revival of The Sleeping Beauty, which emphasized to De Valois the absolute importance of the academy. His experiments in the early 20’s were, as I understand it, essentially pragmatic and certainly if you read reviews of the time, not universally acclaimed. His supply of Russian dancers had dried up, but even at his most disposable, he set trends, he didn’t follow them. And he was interested in Scarlatti as well as Stravinsky, in Renaissance paintings as well as Picasso. Certainly the most acclaimed works of his late period—Les Noces and Apollo—were strongly in the classical tradition, a tradition that understood demi-caractere. At the time he died, Diaghilev was planning to revive Giselle for Markova, so he could never be said to have abandoned classicism or to only look for the new.

Nor does any ballet goer believe that the art form is closed. New forms of moving have always been incorporated, but they have been changed. Certainly folk dancing in the 19th century added a great deal to ballet, but it wasn’t just plunked down, it was refined. Even the character dancers of, say Cortege Hongrois, could not be mistaken for actual peasants, and the famous Raymonda variation is purely classical, for all its character accents. A more modern example of this would be Ashton’s use of the twist in his Swan Lake pas de quatre versus his use of it in Jazz Calendar; both bits use popular dancing but the moves have become either classical or character, and neither would be mistaken for an actual nightclub dance.

You also seem to imply that modern dance has benefited from ballet training. Not everyone is impressed by the flexibility, the extension, or the general prettiness of ballet in modern dance, but, as you might say “Take that, Dudley Williams.”

One of the most memorable artistic experiences I have had was the Chinese Opera a few years ago, during one of the Lincoln Center festivals. No one, as I recall, complained because it was a rigid, hidebound form which could use shaking up. Ballet has always been open to new ways of moving, but it does have a history and a devoted and passionate audience who cares about its preservation. (And anyone who can write that Square Dance was originally danced in hoe-down costumes could benefit a great deal from the often very knowledgeable posters to BalletAlert.com) If you can respect the Chinese tradition, I would hope you could respect ours.

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Elegantly put, cargill. I think it was wise not to read the other letters -- after all, you don't want to open yourself to suggestions of "mutual consultation." :)

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We need to remember that this is the same critic who for years was saying that Linda Rondstadt should sing grand opera. She tried a modern La Boheme at the Papp and it was hardly stellar.

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I didn't hear the radio broadcast, so I my impression of it comes only from reading reports, but I must say bringing up Hitler is a bit much. Especially since Wagner is one of his good guys in his newspaper piece. I certainly don't think artists are responsible for their fans and no one has any idea what Wagner would think of Hitler--I myself think (or perhaps hope) that someone as independent as Wagner would have disliked him--but certainly they would have had a lot to say to each other about the importance of racial purity.

Again, since I didn't hear him, my impression may be wrong, but to somehow equate the hard core ballet audience (and by implication ballet in general) with Fascism is absolutely apalling. Especially since so many of the dancers in one of the academies he dismisses (De Valois' Sadler's Wells) spent a great deal of time either fighting Hitler or performing during bombing attacks. As for dancers who supported Hitler, Mary Wigman was as far from ballet as she could get.

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I thought cargill was making the argument that Wagner was one of the good guys, and the connections between Wagner and Hitler and Wigman et al were pretty clear! (I thought that letter was beautifully written, Mary, with a lot of interesting points.) I've enjoyed Watermill's comments as well.

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I don't know if "good guy" is exactly the term I would use for Wagner! Great artist, yes, since he would be my desert island opera composer, but someone implying that anyone or anything has nazi tendencies (which the term misegination does to many people) should be careful about dividing the world into progressive and retro artists. That's all I meant. Here is Mr. Rockwell's answer to my letter.

Dear Ms. Cargill:

Thanks for your thoughtful letter, although I do hope that everyone who participates in the Ballet Alert forum doesn't now plan to write me and expect an answer. Anyhow, in brief, here are some thoughts on your letter, paragraph by paragraph:

1. In no way do I think that a lack of a past (which, after all, extends in ballet back 400 years) is an absolute benefit. I only meant that maybe the lack of a huge canon of certified masterpieces, relative to classical music, meant that ballet folk were more interested in creating new work. As for the lack of a regular system of dance notation, take that, Ann Hutchinson Guest! I was equating, perhaps clumsily, musical notation with ballet technique, not notation.

2. Sure, Diaghilev stuck with classically trained choreographers, however much Fokine et al. shocked conservatives and however classical you consider Ida Rubinstein's technique to have been. But D. was certainly interested in remaining au courrant, as in his eagerness to de-emphasize Russian primitivism after WWI.

3. Classically trained choreographers (and composers) have always incorporated influences from beyond "the academy," and more power to them. But influences from without are hardly always destructive (I just reviewed Twyla's "Nine Sinatra Songs," for instance, long since taken over by ballet companies).

4. I agree that ballet dancers often look too balletic in modern. I was just referring to the contention of some people (like my late friend Dale Harris) who argue that ballet provides the best, most universal kind of training, applicable to everything else.

5. I'm glad you enjoyed "The Peony Pavilion," a project I conceived and created, working with the director Shi-zheng Chen, whom I hired. Of course, it was canceled in Shanghai because conservatives there denounced it as an outrageous violation of the true kunju tradition. My Square Dance reference was definitely an error, though I got it from a review in the Times archives by Anna Kisselgoff. But what, in all of this, makes you think I don't respect ballet tradition? I just want to renew and extend it, and it seems to me that discussion about the best way to do that can only be healthy.

John Rockwell

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Here is another message I got from Mr. Rockwell, which I do think he wanted me to post.

My comment on dance notation came from a very pleasant lunch I had recently with Hutchinson Guest, set up by Francis Mason. Wotta gal, old Broadway baby, etc. She's convinced that Labanotation holds the keys to the secrets of the universe, and I respect her belief without quite believing it myself.

I do think we (meaning me, you and most of the people at Ballet Alert) fundamentally agree, albeit with clear, sometimes sharp differences of emphasis. Which was why I was so angry that WNYC "disinvited" Leigh Witchel from that program, after I had only agreed to do it on the condition that he and/or Alexandra Tomalonis be there, too. It could have been a discussion. It turned out, in the minds of the Ballet Alert folk, to be another rant by me into a vacuum.

Why don't you post this, too!

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From Mr. Rockwell's first letter to Mary:

I just want to renew and extend [ballet tradition], and it seems to me that discussion about the best way to do that can only be healthy.

On that, I think we can all heartily agree -- both on the importance of renewing and extending, and the healthiness of discussion. On the first, cf course, there are those Devilish details, but that's what the discussion can be about!

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My Square Dance reference was definitely an error, though I got it from a review in the Times archives by Anna Kisselgoff. But what, in all of this, makes you think I don't respect ballet tradition? I just want to renew and extend it, and it seems to me that discussion about the best way to do that can only be healthy.

John Rockwell

That excuse of his error is pretty weak. I would suggest Mr. Rockwell invest in some ballet reference books and not rely only on old reviews (especially in the age of Jayson Blair). And since he'll be reviewing the New York City Ballet a lot, "Repertory in Review" by Nancy Reynolds would be a must, as would Mason's and Balanchine's ballet synopsis book.

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No, but plagurizing would be... which I doubt Mr. Rockwell would do.

However, it would be pretty blind to equate dance notation with music notation, whatever the glories of having a score might be. I'm not sure that was intended... If we had the equivalent of music notation, it would indeed be wonderful... but until every dancer can read notation... well... on the other hand, perhaps lifeforms might do that quickly and easily? Has no one used lifeforms to notate a ballet yet? [off-topic, just to keep in character]

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Here is another message I got from Mr. Rockwell, which I do think he wanted me to post. 

I was hoping you asked Rockwell's permission the first time you copied and posted an emial message of his. Otherwise it wasn't a 100% nice thing to do, particularly when some people are trying to catch him at every little slip.

I suggest we drop persecution mode.

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I'm sorry, but his messages specifically asked me to post them here, as you can see from the final sentence of his last message. I meant by my opening to say that I believed him. Mary

Sorry, I should have added that he suggested I post his first reply as well.

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While I'm delighted that Mr. Rockwell turned the spotlight on PA Ballet, this quote worries me a little.

Again, this is a ballet that blends elements of popular dance with classic ballet steps. The trouble is that the classroom vocabulary looks pretty unadorned. But there are exceptions to the prevailing blandness - bits of lively movement or theatricality, including one song in which two women creep mysteriously along the backdrop - which point to a more promising future for Mr. Neenan.
Pop Tunes and Idioms, a Classical Vocabulary NY Times, 2-4-05

I'm not sure it's what he intended, but it sounds as if Rockwell thinks straightforward ballet vocabulary isn't interesting, but adding in unjustified creeping is. Perhaps he meant that nothing inventive was done within the ballet vocabulary, but that the mystery of the women creeping along the backdrop piqued his interest? I wouldn't be reading this so very closely if there hadn't been the controversy.

And my apologies to Matthew Neenan for interpreting Rockwell's "mysterious" as "unjustified" without having seen the performance in question... I'm critiquing Rockwell's description not Neenan's choreography.

And...

That said, the Pennsylvania dancers are really good, full of technique and personality;...

... but not apparently not enough to mention a single one of them by name? I would have liked to have read more about the dancers and less about the composers, if there wasn't room enough.

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THanks for the link, Amy--

I just read it and see nothing to bother me -- it's plausible that this ballet is only intermittently interesting, reminded me of a lot of ballets I've seen with not enough fantasy in them, and not enough catchiness built into the rythms and every arabesque is first arabesque -- pieces I've wanted to like more than I could.

Actually, his tone sounds sweetly supportive and like he's TRYING not to offend anybody, while not pretending he enjoyed a ballet that he didn't.

Myself, I remember just how disappointed I was by ABT's performances of Nine Sinatra SOngs, which came through BNerkeley less than a year after Tharp's own company had danced it -- I thought it had lost almost everything I loved in it in hte transition. IT was FABULOUS on her company, which knew her style, and on whom it had been made, and hey knew how to make it swing. ABT was awfully bland by comparison.

There's a 'contemporary ballet' company here in he Bay Area called Company C who're about to do "Nine Sinatra SOngs" -- coming up soon -- and I'm hoping they'll hit pay-dirt. Htey have a very jazzy attack, the dancers are good, the directortrains them in a BAlanchine-school hip-thrusting sharp-footed way that may or may NOT actually turn out to be useful in doing Tharp's work -- what I remember enjoying about it was the phrasing, the incredible silliness of Tharp's own dancing in "Show me the Way to go Home" or One more for the Road or whatever it was, where it actually looked somehow like she was trying to sneak back into the house through a basement window..... I know she did NOT do that, but htat's the afterimage I have. Red Skelton could not have been funnier.

There was another dance, was it "Strangers in hte Night"? that had something of the feel of a tango to it the way her own company danced it, that girl was like Rita Hayworth, oh so juicy, incredible fire, sumptuous phrasing.... ABT didn't have ANY of that.

SO what can you say?

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I have to comment on the Rockwell review of PAB even though I did not see this program. His language bothers me every time I read his reviews. I agree with Amy that his tone to the article is supportive of PAB as a solid company, his descriptions leave you cold and even confused. Certainly, I can see why Sinatra Songs may not live up to its early performances with Tharp's own troupe, I know PAB's dancers who can light up the stage and have edge and flair. Julie Diana was dancing one of the leads. But what seemed worse is his compliment to Neenan as a choreography talent when giving 11:11 an odd and less than compilmentary assessment. Very confusing to me. From what the Kraus review of the same performance stated gave a much clearer picture ...........IMO Others that I have spoken with were all in agreement that 11:11 was an amazing piece and they are hoping it stays in the repertory long term. The audience was also enthusiastic from what I was told.

I know it is not uncommon for two reviews to be differing in opinions which is fine. However, it seemed to me that both Rockwell and Kraus were on the 'same page' but Kraus's writing gave me a much keener sense of performance. Again, I was also bothered by dancers not being mentioned for stand out performance......and I cannot believe in the entire night that Rockwell did not find atleast one mention!

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what I remember enjoying about it was the phrasing, the incredible silliness of Tharp's own dancing in "Show me the Way to go Home" or One more for the Road or whatever it was, where it actually looked somehow like she was trying to sneak back into the house through a basement window..... I know she did NOT do that, but htat's the afterimage I have. Red Skelton could not have been funnier.

There was another dance, was it "Strangers in hte Night"? that had something of the feel of a tango to it the way her own company danced it, that girl was like Rita Hayworth, oh so juicy, incredible fire, sumptuous phrasing.... ABT didn't have ANY of that.

SO what can you say?

Paul, I think One for the Road was Sara Rudner and John Carrafa (did you see Tharp do the Rudner part?), and Strangers was Billy Whitener and Amy Spencer, when I find my program I will post. Meanwhile, here's the cast from the original:

Music: Songs sung by Frank Sinatra (Strangers in the Night, All the Way, That's Life, My Way, One For My Baby (And One More for the Road), Softly As I Leave You, Something Stupid, Forget Domani)

Choreography by Twyla Tharp

Costumes by Oscar de la Renta

Lighting by Jennifer Tipton

World Premiere: Twyla Tharp Dance, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, Canada, 10/14/82

Original Cast: Shelley Washington, Keith Young, Mary Ann Kellogg, John Malashock, Sara Rudner, John Carrafa, Richard Colton, Christine Uchida, Raymond Kurshals, Amy Spencer, William Whitener, Jennifer Way, Tom Rawe, Shelley Freydont

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