Pacific Northwest Ballet's Studio C is a big rehearsal hall, with the same dimensions as the stage at nearby McCaw Hall where PNB performs. Despite its size, on this afternoon the room feels packed to the gills.
More than two dozen dancers mill around the edges of the studio, tying on their pointe shoes, or stretching before the rehearsal begins. PNB costume shop manager Larae Thiege Hascall and designer Santo Loquasto sort through bins of colorful beribboned hats and masks, as guests find their seats on folding chairs at the front of the room.
A small woman in a black shirt and trim burgundy jeans oversees this whirlpool of activity, occasionally consulting her yellow legal pad. When Twyla Tharp calls for order, she commands everyone's instant obedience, even though she's hardly raised her voice.
The dancers ready themselves to run through Tharp's newest dance, "Waiting at the Station," a collaboration with Loquasto and composer Allen Toussaint. It's a sexy half hour of non-stop energy, a loose narrative about a man and his son, two romantic couples and their rivalries, as well as death, redemption and transcendence. It's set to a score that evokes mid-20th century New Orleans.
Tharp said "Waiting for the Train" started with that music. She's worked with Blues and R&B scores before, but mostly composers from the Midwest. Tharp wanted something different this time. She and Toussaint talked about the sound the choreographer wanted: music that would conjure Mardi Gras and sultry nights, a place where the supernatural could mingle with the mundane.
As the dance begins, and the corps de ballet dancers strut and shimmy onto the stage and the few audience members are transported to that place; despite the fact that the dancers wear sweaty practice tights and tee shirts instead of Loquasto's costumes, and they move under the glare of the overhead lights instead of artfully placed spotlights.
Tharp has been crafting this dance for a couple of years, most intensively during the past 12 months during a residency with PNB. She's no stranger to Seattle. The ballet company has had her work in its repertoire for more than a decade, and in 2008 premiered two Tharp dances.
But "Waiting at the Station" is much larger than those two pieces: 20 dancers, an orchestra, Loquasto's sets and costumes. The choreographer cast three dancers she'd worked with before: James Moore as the central character, along with Jonathan Poretta and Kiyon Gaines. But she was most excited to work with the dozen corps de ballet dancers, who she says are "full of talent and ideas." Price Suddarth is cast as "the son;" his role is to receive the dance moves his onstage father passes on to him.
"They've earned these roles," Tharp said of the younger dancers. "They work hard."
Rather, Tharp works them hard. She expects them to give her everything they have. And the dancers seem to deliver.
Tharp's long career has seen her evolve from a contemporary performer and dancemaker to a choreographer who has worked in ballet and on Broadway, winning fans as well as foes as she pursues her artistic visions. She is inspired by music, stories she reads and the dances she's made in the past.
She doesn't have false modesty; "Waiting at the Station" will be popular with audiences, she declared with certainty. But maybe not with all the dance critics, she admitted, saying that they aren't ready to acknowledge that popular art can be serious art.
That seems to annoy Tharp, but not enough to alter her artistic vision. That vision has propelled her to the top of her art form.