Death’s a-comin’ . . . Are you ready?
If not, you might find comfort in Twyla Tharp’s new work, Waiting at the Station, which premiered last Friday at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Completely enjoyable, this blues ballet tells the tale of Everyman’s final journey. Allen Toussaint, the R&B master, presided at the piano, playing his tunes with the orchestra, infusing the ballet with a New Orleanian magical realism. He was in the spotlight at the start, and his opening chords seemed to be intoning: “Friends, let me tell you about a man who faced Death . . . ”
That death-facing man was danced by James Moore, and the curtain opened to show him sitting in a moodily-lit, run-down 1940s train station. Over the next half-hour, he ran from three Fates, turned back his own clock, and finally – after teaching his son about life and making peace between feuding friends – willingly jumped on to the proverbial old train.
It’s been 40 years since the premiere of Tharp’s first cross-over ballet, Deuce Coupe. This MacArthur fellow has continued to explore how disparate styles can share the stage. Waiting at the Station feels different from Tharp’s earlier work. Here, for the most part, she resists using ballet to show off feats of speed and extreme extension; fewer starburst arms and daring lifts punctuate the phrasing. And she doesn’t use the jazz to shock; Moore’s jazziness is casual and graceful, unrushed and cool. The result? A more subtle energy.
True to ballet, there is no sign that what Moore is doing requires any more effort than breathing. Straightening his lapel becomes as much a dance movement as the ballet jumps of his feuding friends. Jonathan Porretta and Kiyon Gaines throw off those beautiful jumps as if they were an everyday act, like, say, straightening a lapel.
True to jazz, each main character in this work dances his own bespoke blend of ballet, jazz and popular dance. Tharp, artist-in-residence at PNB, has spent months with these dancers; she knows their movement, they know hers, and the outcome makes sense, reveals character, and tells a good story.
As part of her residency, Tharp also worked with PNB’s emerging choreographers. Like the father in Waiting at the Station, she is passing on her life secrets to these young choreographers and making peace between feuding . . . dance styles. I doubt she’s ready to jump on to any train though; that’s just not her style.