The inside story: Richard Colton talks Nine Sinatra Songs

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.

Q. Birmingham Royal Ballet hadn't danced the ballet for quite a few years so many of the dancers hadn't danced it before - can you tell us something about the process of staging the ballet on the Company?

Well, it has been wonderful working with Birmingham Royal Ballet!  I’ve been here twice before for another Tharp work, In the Upper Room, a work as different from Nine Sinatra Songs as day from night. In the Upper Room never looks back. ‘Vroom’ might be a word that captures some of its explosive energy! And Birmingham Royal Ballet knows how to go full throttle in this way! On the other hand, in Nine Sinatra Songs there is a looking back, even, perhaps, nostalgia for another time. Sinatra is, after all, the voice that most eloquently defines post-war America. Twyla has said that Nine Sinatra Songs, in working with the music of Sinatra, was her attempt at understanding her mother’s generation and their ideals. And from one duet to another as the work moves forward, there can be, with the right dance artists, a kind of chain reaction that creates a powerful and emotional arc that climaxes in the two ensemble sections, one at the middle and the other the finale, and tellingly danced to two different recordings of Sinatra’s My Way

Birmingham Royal Ballet is filled with dancers who are the kinds of artists who thrive in Tharp’s nuanced world and Sinatra’s resonant sound: the long, creamy lines of his voice, its understated depth of feeling, and subtle rhythm. The Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers themselves possess a perfect balance of heart and mind, and the rich physicality that projects deeply into space. Above all, they possess a humanity where the space between them and their audience shrinks with intimacy, essential for this intimate and lyric work that is Nine Sinatra Songs. The dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet are a dream to work with! And it is remarkable that they can move effortlessly from the ‘vroom’ virtuosity of In the Upper Room to the suave assurance, with an undercurrent of vulnerability and danger, that defines Sinatra’s voice and Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs.  

Q. You have staged many works of Tharp for companies ranging from the Paris Opéra Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and The Royal Ballet, and you’ve worked with Twyla since 1972, first in Joffrey Ballet, and later in Twyla Tharp Dance and American Ballet Theatre. Can you tell us more about what makes a great Tharp dancer and performance?

There is ferocity and intelligence! And in most of Tharp’s work you are not playing to the audience, instead you are allowing the audience to share in your thoughts (the great Tharp dancer isn’t doing steps, she’s thinking). And yet with this Tharp performer’s obsessive nature, there is absolute precision, self-involvement, clarity. The true Tharp dancer seems to be holding a conversation with himself that you happen to be overhearing! 

That said a terrific Tharp performance is always like a superlative small jazz ensemble, each dancer listening closely to the other, making music together. Twyla always wanted us, individually and as an ensemble to physically generate the music not simply dance with it! I’ve heard Twyla say regarding dance’s relationship to music, ‘It’s assumed that music inspires movement. In fact, it’s the other way around-movement propels music.’ That’s the secret of a great Tharp performance.

Q. What can you recall of the collaboration between Tharp and her costume designer, the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta? Did he come into the studio?  

De la Renta was himself grace personified. He, and his designs, were the ascending movement of grace. Gravity played no part. Perhaps we, the dancers, were the descending movement. The combination made a wonderful creation!