February 22, 2017

Bach and Sinatra on the Program Of Twyla Tharp Dance at McCarter

FIVE DECADES OF DANCE: Twyla Tharp Dance visits McCarter Theatre as part of the choreographer’s 50th year of creating eclectic work. John Selya, offering his hand to the woman in blue, appears here with the company in “Preludes and Fugues.”

Since forming her own dance troupe after graduating from Barnard College more than five decades ago, Twyla Tharp has continued to challenge the way we think about dance. Starkly modern at first, her style has expanded over the decades to encompass classical ballet while weaving in elements of jazz, slapstick, even boxing.

Along the way, Ms. Tharp has choreographed for Broadway and Hollywood, written three books, won numerous awards, honorary doctorates — the list goes on.

On February 28, as part of a tour marking the choreographer’s 50th anniversary in the business, Twyla Tharp Dance comes to McCarter Theatre. On the program are her recent work Preludes and Fugues, set to music from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, and her much-admired Nine Sinatra Songs, to Frank Sinatra classics.

In the cast of the latter is John Selya, who has been working with the choreographer since the late 1980s when he was in his first season with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), with which she was then affiliated. Since its premiere in 1982, Nine Sinatra Songs has been performed by numerous ballet companies in this country and abroad.

“I love it so much,” Mr.
Selya said of the iconic work. “It’s the music, the style — a little tuxedo action, a little James Bond — it’s just so much fun to dance.”

Mr. Selya clearly remembers his first encounter with Ms. Tharp. “It was when ABT was on tour in San Diego, and she watched the men’s class I was taking,” he said. “After class, my friends and I were horsing around, jumping and showing what we could do. She came up to give me a correction, and I’ve been working with her ever since.”

Ms. Tharp left ABT after a few years to resume her own company. Mr. Selya stayed with ABT longer but left on occasion to join the Tharp troupe on its various tours over the years. He later won notoriety for his Tony-nominated performance in Ms. Tharp’s Broadway show, Movin’ Out. Since departing ABT, he has continued to work with her while pursuing other projects on stage and screen.

So what is it about Ms. Tharp’s work that keeps Mr. Selya, now 46, coming back?

“I like to feel I had excellent ballet training,” he said, “and I love how she takes that training and applies it in the most unusual ways. She’s able to take ballet technique and come up with a new way of looking at it. I love to be spontaneous, too, and she embraces that.”

Ms. Tharp is a tough taskmaster, Mr. Selya said. But she is as patient as she is demanding. “Working with her is always an extreme challenge for me in every single way in terms of stamina, durability, even cranially,” he said. “It’s challenging in different ways, at different points of her process. She allows you a lot of freedom, but for some reason it doesn’t feel free because you’re trying to emulate her style. Ultimately, working with her is just very rewarding.”

A free preview of the February 28 program will take place that same day, from noon to 1 p.m., at Princeton Public Library. In the Community Room, the Tharp company’s manager Alexander Brady and McCarter Theatre Special Programming Director William Lockwood will discuss the two works to be danced that night.