Back in September we were pleased to welcome Richard Colton to stage Twyla Tharp's glorious Nine Sinatra Songs for the Company. We caught up with Richard to find out more about the creation of this surprising and witty ballet.
Q. You were in the original cast of Nine Sinatra Songs. What can you tell us about the creative process?
Each of the seven duets that make up Nine Sinatra Songs was created by Twyla with, what seemed to me, great ease, remarkable considering their individual complexities. Often completed in one session! Alla prima, the technique of painting a picture or making a sculpture in one session, while the paint is still wet, is how I remember it! If Twyla didn’t like something she would ‘erase’, not a single step but often the whole duet, and start again, try something else, and finish the new version in a session or two. Perhaps that’s why each duet is so cohesive, such a whole; they were made with that sense of totality, in one go. And, yes, each duet and song fit the performers like a glove. She knew each of us well, over a period of a few years, before creating Nine Sinatra Songs. Twyla resembles Duke Ellington in the respect that he couldn’t compose music for a player, he said, unless he knew them well, ‘how they played poker’! I was lucky as I got to do two duets, one with partner Christine Uchida to Sinatra singing a Jacques Brel song ‘Coming Together, Coming Apart’, and then when Chris left the company, Twyla wanted to make something special for my new partner, Barbara Hoon. That was ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, sung by Sinatra with his daughter Nancy. By the way, when Sinatra came to our opening night, he memorably came backstage and did not hold back his tears. He was 68 years old at the time and said how much the dance moved him. He told Twyla that he always wanted to be a dancer, and regretted having never been one. Twyla herself had said to us earlier that Sinatra, in fact, sang from the soles of his feet. And Twyla, of course, captures this very sense of physical movement that’s in Sinatra’s music-making in her own dance masterpiece, Nine Sinatra Songs.
Q. What inspired Twyla to make a work that uses ballroom dance vocabulary?
Of course, despite the actual speed in the studio creation of Nine Sinatra Songs, like everything Twyla does, it was part of a longer and thoughtful process. Nine Sinatra Songs premiered in 1982 and came directly after her work on Milos Foreman’s 1981 film Ragtime. To prepare for that film I remember Twyla, with the dancers, methodically going through a 1914 book, Modern Dance, by legendary husband-and-wife ballroom partners Irene and Vernon Castle, in which directions, step-by-step, are given for the turn-of the-century ballroom moves of Tango, Foxtrot, Waltz, Rumba, Cha-Cha, Quick Step and more. So it was through Twyla’s creative filter that these studiously learned ballroom forms for the film Ragtime would soon be used, with all their nuance and the perfume they leave behind, to trace and investigate the different expressions of romantic love that make up Nine Sinatra Songs. It felt to me like an inevitable and fascinating progression moving from the narrative, period film Ragtime to the more abstract, pure dance Nine Sinatra Songs, both sharing the ballroom vernacular but to such different effect.