Twyla Tharp on the Road: Hauling in Heaven

Ramona Kelley backstage at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.

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

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Credit...Nick Coppula

BOULDER, Colo. — This week we give shows in three cities, Santa Fe, Denver and Boulder, all at altitude. For reference, the highest point in New York City is on Staten Island and is about 410 feet above sea level. Santa Fe is 7,000 feet above sea level. The basic problem for all athletes at altitude is reduced oxygen, and this joins the touring show’s list of needs to accommodate while traveling. Changes of stage space, lights, beds, food, crew, routine and audiences — all must be addressed.

Having no experience with dancing at altitude, we add oxygen in the wings, and sympathize with one another about all our other new realities. As for the performances, we have entered the zone of show maintenance. For me this means giving notes and to do this, I need to factor my own condition into the mix.

I now have a cold probably developed in the air-conditioning on the bus into Denver, and this makes me cranky and tired. But friends from older days help buoy my spirits. In Denver, my ballet mistress Shelley Washington, just returned from teaching “In the Upper Room” in Australia, comes with her husband, David Swenson, and I hitch a ride home from the theater with them talking old times.

Of course, I drill them on what they have just seen. We part exchanging hugs. But I also gain observations. Shelley is impressed with the company’s presence and preparedness. She also notes some antecedents from the repertory of her era with the company, the ’70s and ’80s. We all remember the past better than the future (ask Yogi Berra), and we tend to see what we know. “Uncle Edgar Dyed His Hair Red” — really, Shelley? But while that one is lost on me, all the observations that come my way help me see what others are seeing. While I always attempt to process outside information taking both positive and negative in context, criticism can still be very painful.

You want to be careful addressing performers with critical observations. Take into account very hard floors, blinding lights, thin air, changing schedules, compromised spaces. Combine this with the reality that all great dancers are already extremely self-critical and you will realize negative notes must be given in context if they are not to become unnecessarily demoralizing. I try to time my note-giving judiciously.

We arrive in Boulder on Saturday, and after check in, go straight to a studio to rehearse “The One Hundreds,” an early work that incorporates the audience into the dancing. While this will not be presented until Los Angeles, Ramona Kelley and Kaitlyn Gilliland have been mentally preparing since we left New York in airplanes and buses, and are restless to check on themselves. They get through the set without a snag and then receive some “picky” notes from both me and Rika Okamoto, who has performed the series many times. These are details, but details that make a big difference.

During our stretching session before this rehearsal, taking a mental, emotional and physical sampling from the dancers, I ask what they are feeling about the shows. The most telling comment is, “I am starting to feel the same in ‘Preludes and Fugues’ and ‘Yowzie.’ ” Whoops. That is close to what I saw in our last show in Denver, and I know it is now time to do a notes session: The Bach (“Preludes and Fugues”) is slipping into interpretation when all that is called for is “Just the facts, ma’am”; and “Yowzie” is becoming a bit tepid and blurred, its split-second timing going soft.

But hold on: The show has transferred well, the dancers have debuted a year of work and have survived not only five performances in three cities at altitude but have also given solid shows, a testament to their personal discipline and commitment. The crew has loaded the show into three wildly different theaters in one week. Our audiences have been positively responsive, beginning a tradition of standing ovations that we hope will be maintained for the balance of the tour. I say well-nigh time for a thank-you and decide to invite everyone for a dinner on the company.

So Saturday evening at a nearby farm-fresh gluten-free restaurant across from the hotel, dinner begins with a toast to the dancers and the team. Then a quick segue into my big general performance notes and a problem that emerged earlier in the afternoon. “We are beginning to notice the audience,” I say. “We are playing to the audience. This will undermine your performance and make every dance you ever do into the same dance. Do not forget it is our sense of direction that will takes us to the destination, not how our passengers are feeling.”

The food arrives. Mostly kale salads and protein sides. A few beers are delivered and the water carafe is passed and replenished often. I leave early. John Selya, accompanies me on the short walk to the hotel. In addition to being a dancer, John is also a surfer and a very good actor, and we talk about his lifelong pursuit of truth through split-second timing in all three realms.

Next day in the afternoon there is a tech rehearsal dedicated to addressing the realities of the night’s show — space (tiny), lights (direct), wings (short), set (cut). I also give the dancers a laundry list of detailed notes from the last performance in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the dances even under these compromised conditions.

The dancers go off between the tech and the show to prepare. I am told there is a six-point buck outside and indeed there he is, resting in the shade. Come 6:55 it is time for the ritual the dancers conduct a half-hour before curtain, dancing lightly through the first fanfare to put us all on the same page. After this, the house opens for the audience and I see the men offstage who will be hauling on ropes to lift the curtain. And I wonder, “How are we doing?” as we join up with the thousands of ghost performers who have preceded us in this historic theater, the Macky Auditorium.

Sunday night’s show? We have our first onstage collision; the stage was too small for the dancers at full force and they are fatigued by the grueling week. Also I know the notes I have given have altered many aspects of their performance. But I feel “Preludes and Fugues” beginning to land and “Yowzie” focusing in such a way that its interior episodes generate a real response apart from the music. The two halves are quite clear: “Preludes and Fugues” is the austerity of innocence, “Yowzie” the childishness only adults can manage.

Afterward, on the way to the bus, I see the blood-red moon. This, in combination with the afternoon’s buck, helps me feel the dances are part of a continuum that is one very grand circle. Here at altitude, closer to the sky, I cannot but suspect there is a quite special union of seraphim hard at work, raising and lowering curtains for tomorrow.

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