Tharp Stages for the Joffrey Ballet Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Avant-garde choreographer Twyla Tharp and artistic director Robert Joffrey surprised ballet audiences with Deuce Coupe,a fresh new ballet that changed perceptions of ballet structure.

Summary of Event

On March 1, 1973, the curtain of the City Center for Music and Drama in New York rose on a landmark new ballet. The work, specially commissioned for the City Center Joffrey Ballet, was called Deuce Coupe. Everything about the ballet was a surprise. Deuce Coupe brought a little-known avant-garde choreographer before the eyes of a wide ballet public, instantly making her a star. It looked at dance, both classical and contemporary, from a skewed angle by mixing ballet vocabulary with social dance styles and ballerinas with modern dancers. Its music and decor came from popular culture, not high art. Dance;ballet Joffrey Ballet Company Choreography;Twyla Tharp[Tharp] Ballet Dance;ballet Joffrey Ballet Company Choreography;Twyla Tharp[Tharp] Ballet Tharp, Twyla Joffrey, Robert

By 1973, Robert Joffrey had succeeded in realizing his dream of creating a ballet company that would reflect the state of dance in the United States. Joffrey had wanted to encourage young American choreographers working with American music and American themes. As early as 1967, Joffrey himself had chosen to use acid-rock music and psychedelic decor in his unprecedented pas de deux Astarte. Gerald Arpino, Arpino, Gerald the Joffrey Ballet’s associate director, had presented an apocalyptic world vision dressed in the latest high-technology stage effects with Clowns (1968) and had glorified the hippie years of war protest in his wildly popular ballet Trinity (1970). With these and other topical works, the Joffrey Ballet had become firmly established as a company performing relevant ballets for a young, “with-it” crowd. Neither Joffrey’s selection of the experimental choreographer Twyla Tharp to create a new ballet for his company nor the ballet, Deuce Coupe, should have surprised the public, yet they did.

Twyla Tharp—born in Indiana, reared in California, educated in New York—was the iconoclastic choreographer of Deuce Coupe. She took the ballet’s name from “Little Deuce Coupe,” a popular song of the early 1960’s by the Beach Boys. A tape collage of “Little Deuce Coupe” and thirteen other Beach Boys Beach Boys tunes formed the accompaniment. Tharp juxtaposed tradition and rebellion by having one female dancer dressed in a white tutu proceed methodically across the stage, performing all the steps of the classical ballet vocabulary in an alphabetical execution from ailes de pigeon to voyagé. Meanwhile, costumed in orange sun dresses or red beachcomber pants and Hawaiian print shirts, a maelstrom of dancers from both the Joffrey Ballet and Tharp’s own small company churned around her. Sometimes their movements echoed the ballerina’s, but with an odd twist. Often their movements were exaggerations—speeded up, enlarged, clarifying—of the social dances of the 1960’s. Simultaneously with this apparent chaos, the scenery was created anew each night by a group of young New Yorkers who called themselves the United Graffiti Artists. As three large white panels slowly rolled upward, they applied graffiti with spray paint in a style remarkably like that of the “art” adorning apartment house stoops, the walls surrounding vacant lots, and most of the subway trains in New York.

Tharp introduced the ballerina in the opening section, “Matrix I,” contrasting the formality and serene grace of that figure with two other dancers, a couple who gyrated in a semblance of contemporary rock steps. In ensuing sections of the dance, Tharp introduced the rest of the cast while maintaining the ballerina as the calm eye of a storm. Without relinquishing the ballet vocabulary, the ballerina occasionally echoed the eccentricities of the dancers surrounding her, her movements adopting briefly the syncopated rhythms and relaxed torsos of the other dancers. Occasionally, the ballerina abandoned the stage to the spastic movements of the rest, only to reappear and pick up where she had left off in her execution of the ballet lexicon.

At times, Tharp illustrated the content of the Beach Boys songs literally. For example, the piece performed to “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” began with a slow-motion pantomime of marijuana smoking, and “Don’t Go Near the Water” contained swimming motions. Yet Tharp always broke up such images by accelerating, fragmenting, and multiplying the movement, then sending it into another part of the stage space before resolving the section. At other times, Tharp was not quite literal but was, rather, tongue-in-cheek. Her ability for self-parody emerged principally in “Long Tall Texan,” during which one small female dancer (Tharp) imitated the smooth moves of a tall female dancer (Rose Marie Wright, Wright, Rose Marie a member of Tharp’s company). Often, every dancer had his or her own path to wend and time in which to accomplish the task. If two dancers were onstage, then two movement phrases were evident; if ten dancers, then ten movement phrases—or sometimes one movement phrase performed in ten different ways.

Tharp concluded the ballet with a gradual accumulation of the entire cast performing fragments of thematic movements that had occurred throughout the ballet. Gradually, Tharp massed the dancers on one side of the stage, with the ballerina isolated from them in the center. At that moment, all the dancers froze, etched by two pools of light. Then music and dancers faded.


As he had with previous commissions of choreographers for the Joffrey Ballet, Joffrey demonstrated astuteness in his choice of Tharp. The immediate reception of Deuce Coupe, by critics and public alike, was ecstatic. Deuce Coupe was a phenomenon—a ballet that pleased both the uncritical, non-dance-educated crowds and the severest of professional critics. The ballet worked for so many people for several reasons. Its surface held immense appeal. That is, it looked and sounded just right, exploiting the audience’s natural tendency toward nostalgia with those eminently hummable Beach Boys tunes and capitalizing on the trend to revere urban folk art as expressed through the spray-paint cans of the United Graffiti Artists. This look and sound made the avant-garde palatable to a young audience that was as apt to attend a rock concert as the ballet. The first level, the entertainment level, of Deuce Coupe worked instantly. This ballet went directly to viewers’ hearts, bypassing the head. The audience could sit back, relax, and enjoy Deuce Coupe without having to engage in great amounts of mental effort. The ballet took people’s breath away, rendering at least one usually articulate dance critic figuratively speechless and skeptical of her ability to write coherently about such a rich and complex ballet.

Part of the ballet’s initial appeal was its juxtaposition of classical and contemporary dance art forms. Tharp offered a wealth of visual ideas: the image of the ballerina relentlessly pursuing her goals toward the ideal in spite of the “voices” of the latest fashions in social dancing; frenetic, unclassifiable blends of everyday gesture with pyrotechnical turns and leaps that suddenly encounter moments of stillness or fussy footwork reminiscent of tap dancing; and the mingling of Joffrey Ballet dancers with Tharp’s company. The movement was brash, slinky, hot, cool, elastic, tight, intricate, dreamy, direct, clever, intelligent, elegant—a veritable kaleidoscope of steps. Threaded through this brilliant array of quicksilver movement was the constancy of classicism, the ballerina, who represented the foundations of Western art forms.

Tharp’s images were presented unorthodoxly. Instead of clear, geometric arrangements of even numbers of dancers in time and space, as typically occurred in ballet, Tharp cluttered her work with odd numbers. She dispatched her corps to peculiar places on the stage, clumping them or spreading them out, but always in unexpected ways. Instead of gearing up for a rousing grand finale with the entire cast onstage, she slowly dispersed the dancers—an ebb rather than a flood tide. Deuce Coupe was visually unpredictable. More than that, it demanded a new way of looking at ballet by disregarding nineteenth century rules for structure.

Below the exciting surface, Deuce Coupe held further appeal. The ballet reminded audiences of carefree teenage years before the arrival of adult responsibility, that period of growing up when life was one long moment of waiting to catch just the right wave that would carry one into a rosy future. It was about revving up car motors and looking for love. It was about getting high and about innocent sexuality. In short, it was about youth. Deuce Coupe was a ballet not to the Beach Boys’ music so much as it was about the music, lifestyle, and generation that the music extolled. These subjects waited below the surface of Deuce Coupe for those members of the audience willing to delve into layers of possible meaning.

In Deuce Coupe, Tharp investigated several preoccupations that proved fruitful in succeeding years. She sought a blend of the highly contrasting movement styles—the latest teen social dances, jazz, tap, modern dance, and ballet—that live side by side in the rich tradition of American dance. She investigated the discipline of classical ballet, which constitutes the technical foundation for much of American concert dance. She commented wittily, but without moralizing, on a substratum of American culture. She employed popular music as a vehicle for her social observations. She created an ebb and flow of loose-limbed, seemingly spontaneous and improvisational movement that was syncopated with the music rather than wedded to its rhythms and tempos. She also developed a structure that became her basic aesthetic stance: a presentation of order that dissolves into chaos and returns to order.

Despite its critical and popular acclaim, Deuce Coupe shortly became unworkable in its initial format. Touring was problematic, for Tharp and her company moved on to other projects; furthermore, taking the United Graffiti Artists on the road was infeasible. Tharp then customized the ballet, stripping it down to a version (called, not surprisingly, Deuce Coupe II) that suited the Joffrey company alone and with a newly designed set by James Rosenquist. This streamlined edition became equally popular with the public—if not with the press, which tended to regard the original Deuce Coupe as irreplaceable.

Deuce Coupe had long-run ramifications for Tharp, for the Joffrey Ballet, for the ballet world, and even for a generalized filmgoing public. Deuce Coupe displayed this quirky, irreverent, go-her-own-way choreographer to groups larger than her previously small but devoted coterie of fans. The ballet helped to establish Tharp’s reputation as an experimental choreographer, as a modern dancer running her own company, and as a popular phenomenon. For the Joffrey Ballet, Deuce Coupe solidified its reputation as the “hippest” company around. The ballet’s success quickly led to Tharp’s creating another work for the Joffrey company. In October of the same year, 1973, As Time Goes By, performed to the music of Josef Haydn, was an equal hit without resorting to the faddishness of popular music and graffiti decor.

In 1976, American Ballet Theatre American Ballet Theatre sought out Tharp to create a vehicle for the company’s new superstar, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Baryshnikov, Mikhail The resulting Push Comes to Shove Push Comes to Shove (ballet) indeed provided the multitalented Baryshnikov an opportunity to explore a part of the vast new dance horizon for which he had defected to the West. Push Comes to Shove was also a droll commentary on Baryshnikov, backstage politics at American Ballet Theatre, ballet conventions, and rehearsal habits. The popularity of the piece was astounding.

Subsequently, Tharp created a string of other ballets for American Ballet Theatre. In May, 1984, American Ballet Theatre staged an entire evening of Tharp ballets. For a brief period in the late 1980’s, she shared the duties of artistic director for American Ballet Theatre with Baryshnikov while simultaneously maintaining the existence of her own organization, the Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation.

In addition, her fame as a choreographer spread beyond the limits of a ballet audience. In 1978, she produced the choreography for Milos Forman’s film of the 1960’s counterculture musical Hair (1979). Later, she tackled another stage-to-film project as choreographer for Amadeus (1984) and made another essay into cinematic dance with White Nights (1986), which starred Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. Her dance company returned to the road in 1991 with Baryshnikov in the successful Cutting Up, and other successful tours. In 1992, Tharp published her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, the same year she won a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2003, she won a Tony Award Tony Awards for her work in Billy Joel’s dance musical Movin’ Out and won several other awards, including the Astaire Award, as audiences continued to enjoy her work. Dance;ballet Joffrey Ballet Company Choreography;Twyla Tharp[Tharp] Ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Au, Susan. Ballet and Modern Dance. 2d ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002. A discussion of American avant-garde choreographers and the place of Tharp in the experimental dance scene.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coe, Robert. Dance in America. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1985. Picture of American dance as presented in the series prepared by the Public Broadcasting Service; describes contributions of the City Center Joffrey Ballet and analyzes the work of Tharp, who is labeled a “contemporary master.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Croce, Arlene. Afterimages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Collection of Croce’s early dance criticism; reviews Deuce Coupe and other works by Tharp and ballets in the Joffrey Ballet repertoire. Croce is a bold critic of dance, unafraid to voice her opinion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruen, John. The World’s Great Ballets: “La fille mal gardée” to “Davidsbündlertänze.” New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981. Descriptions of topical ballets in the Joffrey Ballet repertoire: Astarte and Trinity in addition to Deuce Coupe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Dale. “Twyla Tharp.” In Contemporary Dance: An Anthology of Lectures, Interviews, and Essays with Many of the Most Important Contemporary American Choreographers, Scholars, and Critics, edited by Anne Livet. New York: Abbeville Press, 1978. A presentation of information about fifteen experimental American choreographers who emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Tharp section details her career as a member of the avant-garde as well as popular ballet choreographer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jowitt, Deborah. Dance Beat: Selected Views and Reviews, 1967-1976. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1977. Compilation of reviews by the dance critic for the Village Voice. Alludes to Joffrey Ballet works of a topical nature and has a review of Deuce Coupe in which the author refers to herself as “stunned.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Siegel, Marcia B. The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979. Attempts to preserve the heritage of twentieth century dance in the United States by describing, analyzing, and responding to a spectrum of dance works. This book offers the most extensive description of the events in Deuce Coupe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tharp, Twyla. Push Comes to Shove. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. An inspirational, fascinating autobiography by the avant-garde choreographer.

Multiculturalism Dominates the Dance World

Baryshnikov Becomes Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre

New Dance U.S.A. Festival

Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black Artists

Debut of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project

Categories: History