The audience in Chicago's Shubert Theatre is on its feet yelling, and choreographer Twyla Tharp stands up, too, scrawling notes and intently watching the curtain calls amid the commotion. The instant the house lights go up, she scrambles to get backstage; then, after a few quick meetings, she's out the stage door and racing toward her hotel, talking every second of the way. She's not in any hurry. She's just thinking. But thinking is something she likes to do aloud and at top speed, a little as if she were bulldozing a building for the fun of it.
"What are we going to call it? What is it? Is there a word?" she keeps demanding. She's been eavesdropping -- some people in the audience are confused by the show. The newspaper ads call it "a new musical," but there's no dialogue to convey the story, not even a voice-over like the one that drove the action in Contact. This show is all dancing, fueled by a rock band performing songs by Billy Joel. "You know what it is?" she says at a street corner, eyes darting as she waits impatiently for the light to change. "It's a full-length. That's what it is. It's a full-length ballet. But you can't call it that." Sure you can, if your goal is two weeks at Lincoln Center and a faithful audience of ballet lovers. Tharp's show, however, is headed for Broadway -- eight performances a week, top ticket price $95, no margin for error. What is it?
Movin' Out, as the ads now make clear, is a Broadway show, period. No handle at all. "Actually, that was Billy's suggestion," says Tharp, scarfing down takeout sushi in midtown last week. "Just use the title, and let everybody else call it whatever they want." Good idea, because this hybrid defies all categories. It certainly doesn't look like a full-length ballet -- not with a ten-man band headed by Michael Cavanaugh pounding away from a platform overhead so that the music is right smack within the frame of the dancing. (The danseur noble who enters driving a '67 Mustang doesn't exactly evoke Sleeping Beauty, either.) Tharp chose 29 of Joel's songs, putting them in a sequence that allows both words and music to generate a story line about the sixties and their aftershocks. Vietnam is at the center of the narrative, but through and around the war, we see high-school kids from Long Island growing up and crashing headlong into America.
Often the choreography mirrors the lyrics; sometimes Tharp just rides the music. She stages the straightforward love song "She's Got a Way," for instance, as a wistful duet for four. The two lovers -- one in Vietnam, the other back home -- never touch or even see each other. Each is partnered by somebody else. "I said, 'You know, Billy, I'm destroying the context of your songs,' " says Tharp. "He said, 'Fine, go for it.' "
Tharp has always wanted movement to be the chief storyteller in this show, but for a while she was encouraging the dancers to speak up, too. "We had a lot of yelling and screaming going on," she admits. "You get energy from that. I said okay, this is good, we need more." She kept piling it on, until a woman in the audience was glimpsed covering her ears, then her eyes, then her ears again. That gave Tharp pause. Finally, Jerome Robbins, who died four years ago but remains a trusted source of wisdom for Tharp, convinced her she was overwhelming the audience with too much information coming from too many directions.
"Jerry and I used to carry on this argument all the time," she recalls. "He said, 'You can't talk in dance.' I said, 'Jerry, you're so old-fashioned, of course you can talk in dance.' He said, 'It does not work.' So here's Jerry in Chicago, sitting over here, and he's just grinning and saying nothing. Shaking that head from time to time. All right, Jerry, all right. This time they have to shut up."
So they shut up and danced. Meanwhile, the first reviews came in: The Chicago critics loved the dancing, but they couldn't follow the story. Tharp lined up all the reviews, studied them, and sprang into action. "I'm going, Okay, these are the specific confusion points, break them out, break them down, confront them, analyze them, and say yea or nay," she says. "Some of them I thought were wrong, some of them I said, 'You're absolutely right, this is not reading as intended. Fix it.' It's like in fairy tales, there's always the one jewel hidden by many brambles. The challenge is always to take away the dross and leave that thing. That's what editing is about, and that's what this process is." By the time the show went into previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where it opens officially on October 24, she had cleared away acres of brambles. But she's still eavesdropping on the audience to find out if the jewel is visible.
Tharp knows she stands accused of ambition, commercialism, and every other sin against art, but she's always believed that good dance belongs in people's lives right next to eating and sunsets and baseball. Any delivery system that works is fine with her. She's fielding spectacular performers, including mile-high Elizabeth Parkinson, whose legs alone deserve a dressing room with a star on the door, and John Selya, already one of those Tharp immortals (Baryshnikov was another), who embodies her wildest movement ideas with such wit and clarity it's as if he's channeling her.
"Everybody who is looking to go 'Sell-out! Compromise!' can just get over it," she says. "You show me this year a better pas de deux than 'Shameless.' Anywhere, on any stage in the world. You show me a better operatic sequence in dance than 'Goodnight Saigon.' " Last week, she talked to a man in the audience who told her he came because he's a Billy Joel fan. By the end of the show, he was a convert, transfixed by the dancing. But is it art that did the trick? "You tell me," Tharp fires back. She loves demolishing this question. "I just think dance is very grand. And I think it's very, very capable -- dance can express anything. So you tell me if it's art."