“I break dance to Sinatra in the show,” says John Selya matter-of-factly about one of his freestyle sections in Come Fly Away. “It’s bizarre, but it happens.”
It’s not the only bizarre aspect of Come Fly Away, which opens tonight and runs for the next two weeks at the Pantages Theatre. The entire musical in based on an odd coupling, Twyla Tharp’s moves and Frank Sinatra’s music, which then blossoms into four dancing pairs navigating the rocky terrain of new love with all of its splendor and sting.
Selya, a member of the Come Fly Away cast since its 2009 premiere in Atlanta and the resident director of Twyla Tharp Dance since 1999, continues to unearth the beginnings of his break dancing moment.
“Twyla says, “˜Hey, here’s this part in the music, here’s the stage, what do you got for me?’” Selya then shows her moves that date back to his days as a b-boy when he was 14, breaking on a piece of linoleum on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. “She says, “˜Perfect,’ and however she wants that to read and come over to the audience, that’s in her brain.”
On further reflection, it makes perfect sense that street dance would be a part of Tharp’s repertoire. “B-boys and break dancing, they are dancing from the heart, which is where Twyla wants you to dance from,” Selya adds. Maybe this section of the show isn’t so strange after all.
“The highest compliment I get from Twyla is, “˜Wow, you dance from the heart,’” relays Selya, as he continues to demystify the Twyla/break dancing connection. “I think these break dancers ““ and I understand because I was a break dancer ““ they have the same discipline as some kid at the Mariinsky [the Russian ballet company formerly known as the Kirov]. They are in a garage every night on a linoleum with bumps on their head because it’s coming from the heart. They’re going to make it happen. They’re self-taught. Twyla appreciates the mind that can discipline itself to do this, has the heart, and it matters to them so it comes across with high intensity.”
This style of guerrilla dance reminds Selya of Tharp’s early days of dancing, when nobody was making it easy for her. She went around in basements and farms doing what she had to do without resources.
Tharp has never steered clear of innovating and groundbreaking work. In 1973, her Deuce Coupe premiered at the Joffrey Ballet, which she choreographed to the Beach Boys and included social dances of the time, like the jerk, the swim, and the monkey, and featured graffiti writing in the background.
“Twyla has always been able to incorporate disparate elements and make them into a cohesive whole,” states Selya, which is why the creation of Come Fly Away was possible.
“Twyla, if she chooses to be interested or loyal to something, if it’s fascinating to her, she responds. She feels passionate about Sinatra’s music and understands it on a very deep level,” Selya says. “It’s inspiring to her,” and Selya positions this spark as the key ingredient to the ripple effect of the show’s success. “When Twyla is inspired, then the dancers are inspired, and hopefully the audience responds.”
Tharp’s creative romance with Frank Sinatra’s showy tunes took root more than 30 years ago. In 1976, she created a duet for the American Ballet Theatre for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov titled Once More Frank. She went a step further in 1982, orchestrating 14 dancers in Nine Sinatra Songs, which was followed two years later by Sinatra Suite, a duet with Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo. Sinatra requested that Sinatra Suite be performed when he received his Kennedy Center Honors Award. According to Tina, Sinatra’s daughter, “He’d say, “˜She gives me class.’”
“It’s almost like a conversational thing,” Selya offers about the longstanding artistic Tharp/Sinatra affair. “Frank is elegant and a virtuoso performer, but there’s also a comfortable factor with him just being accessible. With Twyla’s dancing, it has a casual air sometimes, where it’s for the people. His style people relate to because he’s almost speaking to you in a very simple way, and sometimes her dance is in that same kind of manner. The casualness masks the actual sophistication of it.”
Come Fly Away went to Broadway last season, and a version landed at the Wynn Las Vegas recently, entitled Sinatra Dance With Me. The musical hits L.A. with a few song additions, a few song subtractions, one intermission elimination and one color switch — Babe’s dress is now red, not blue.
“I think the changes were brought about because Twyla wanted to streamline the production,” states Selya, “and make it more dance-driven, and not as narrative-driven.”
Because Selya has worked closely with Tharp since 1999 as the resident director of Twyla Tharp Dance, he can speak with a certain authority about her process.
“Her main thing is that she does these shows and the dancing is primary,” Selya emphasizes. “A lot of shows, people get bogged down in other elements. She is interested in one thing, and that’s the dance. She has singular focus to really bring dance to the front in any way. She’s so dedicated to dancers and having them dance.”
This may be one of the reasons why the type of dancer Tharp works with is another key ingredient to her success. According to Selya, her creative team looks for particular traits when casting. About 80% of what they’re looking for is technique, which includes partnering for guys, and the rest is the x factor, or as Selya explains,
“When you’re executing passages of her choreography, you are able to make them your own.”
“She holds a dancer with a lot of responsibility,” says Selya. “It’s as if she says, “˜I’ve given you steps, studio, music, ideas. Now you give me something.’ They are being included in the process. We want to see their generosity of self and willingness to commit to the movement without having to be spoon-fed everything.”
Though the dancers are included in the choreographic process, there is one exception.
“She doesn’t like to let dancers in frontally, as she likes to say, to a project or piece,” states Selya. “She won’t sit you down and say, “˜This is about Frank in his middle years and all he did was sing this song over and over. She will never come out with ideas. She’s provocative in that way. What you do and how you dance needs to come from a place where it is not premeditated.”
In other words, there is not a Frank Sinatra boot camp for the newer members of the show. “It’s contrary to how Twyla likes to work,” Selya assures. “That would be too reliant on the source of the music. She’s such a proponent and champion of dance being in the foreground that even though she loves this music, she knows what she wants to see upfront, and that’s the dancing. If you emphasized Frank too much to the dancers it would remove them from their pure reaction to it. When you have so much back-story you get far away from essence of what Twyla wants to see.”
“The appeal of this piece is it keeps getting better,” Selya points out. “Each show you realize more and more of its potential. The different casts make it extremely interesting in each incarnation. It’s an elegant piece without being stuffy. Sinatra has a strong fan base that would never visualize the songs the way that they are visualized on stage, in a good way. Hearing the songs in a different context is fascinating. I don’t think people understand how physical the show is when they walk in. Sinatra is a laid-back performer, and it’s perfect music to initiate the physical response that the dancers are giving it. It’s unexpected like that.”
As is Tharp herself, which brings us full circle.
“One day she sits us down,” Selya begins, recounting a quintessential Tharp tale. “We’re making a ballet at ABT, and she says, “˜Here’s what I want to do. Here’s modern dance [pointing to one side of the paper], and here’s classical dance [pointing to the other side]. She drew a line down the center. And then she scribbled out the line. She integrates almost everything into great looking dance. Nothing is off limits.”
Come Fly Away, presented by Broadway/LA. Opens Oct. 25. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Through Nov. 6. Tickets: $25-125. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd, LA. www.BroadwayLA.org. 800-982-ARTS(2787) or visit the Pantages box office or Ticketmaster outlets.
***All Come Fly Away production photos by Joan Marcus