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Come Fly Away

Presented at the MARQUIS THEATRE by James M. Nederlander and James L. Nederlander, COME FLY AWAY – A New Musical. Concept, Direction and Choreography by Twyla Tharp, Vocals by Frank Sinatra (By special arrangement with the Frank Sinatra Family and the Frank Sinatra Enterprises). New York.

The set (James Youmans) on the very capacious stage of the Marquis Theatre , is that of a nightclub, with a bandstand sweeping around upstage supporting a large live orchestra led by Russ Kassoff featuring the live vocalisations by Hilary Gardiner and the eternal sound of Mr Sinatra himself, sound tracked from recordings with the ‘magic’ of contemporary technology.

In her latest book, THE COLLABORATIVE HABIT, Ms Twarp says: “Over three decades ,I did three dances using Sinatra’s music. My first was a piece that had Misha (Baryshnikov), in his prime, not leaving the ground.(That was one unhappy audience!) Next came NINE SINATRA SONGS, a thirty-minute suite of duets for seven couples that is still in the repertoire of a number of dance companies around the world. And then SINATRA SUITE, a series of dances for Baryshnikov and a partner that cast Misha in a cool, antiheroic role..” So, talking of her own personal growth and the changes to her approach over recent years Ms Tharp goes on: “Stage five. One last confrontation with myself, this one internal. My motives – what are they? Why take a fourth pass at Sinatra? Is this fresh for me? Am I eager to attack this material? Or am I losing my edge, settling, fooling myself with another rehash of old themes? Because if that is my reality, am I not asking for another disappointment? How am I operating here – out of strength or weakness?….Our emotions are never far from the surface…..And in dance companies, they surface daily….You find it in the way dancers’ energy changes when the music starts. Love stories are a way of harnessing, dramatizing, exploding those emotions. The method is ancient; conflicts.”

“It happens in couples. But “couples are never generic. Just ask the participants – they all consider themselves unique. So in the new Sinatra pieces (COME FLY AWAY), I follow four couples during a single night in a club. I show you who comes in with whom, who leaves with whom, and what happens in between. Each character is dramatically different, but they share one belief: Other people, for all the heartache they cause us, still represent the best opportunity we have to make sense of our lives. This is the subtext of many Sinatra songs – maybe, when you’ve lived long enough and piled up some emotional mileage, it’s the subtext of a lot of things. It’s not a new idea for me. But this time, I stumbled into a fresh perspective… As I was building the Sinatra evening, something felt different. The words and music hadn’t changed. But I had – and now, I suddenly realised, so, for me, had the essence of the songs.”

“When I used his music his music in the 1970’s, I adopted the then popular view of Sinatra as a man’s man: the tough talker with a bunch of male buddies, the inconstant lover who moulded women to fit his needs. Male-dependent women still exist, but there are fewer of them now. More commonly, we picture a good romantic relationship as an equal partnership, with both sides struggling to avoid power trips – we picture romance as a collaboration. And so, in my latest Sinatra, women drive the plot and initiate the action as often as the men do.”

In truth the dramaturgical wherewithal of COME FLY AWAY is as rudimentary and stacked with cliché both in character and story as any other ‘ordinary’ dance construction, seen and wearily experienced many times before.. We have the “innocent”, Betsy (Laura Mead), all wide eyed and ready for corruption: the wicked, naughty vamp, Kate (Karine Plantadit) wreaking mischievous chaos among patrons and staff; the sophisticate with the appearance of haughty aloofness, that is really masking yearning vulnerability, Babe (Holly Farmer) etc. Giggly, or sexy or otherwise, that end in disagreements, quarrels and misunderstandings etc with the men, that escalate into more expressionistic and/or surreal desperations in the second half (even the loss of clothing). But what sustains and demarcates this work from the recognisably ordinary is the tremendous sounds from the big band, and the haunting immortal music from the repertoire of Mr Sinatra, some 32 renditions covering stuff from “Moonlight Becomes You” through to the double finale of “My Way” and “New York, New York” – plus the mostly exuberant choreography of Twyla Tharp and the relish of the dances in the dancing of it.

Most of the sweep of the solos and duets and the patterning of partnerings in trios with the company ensemble were exuberant and intricate enough to keep one refreshed and alive. The work occasionally had longeurs but they were brief and the sheer joyousness of the dancers was infectious. I especially responded to the work of Charlie Neshyba-Hodges – his swallow dives into the air breathtakingly spectacular and dangerous, the cuteness and exactitude of Laura Mead, the partnering of this couple light and playful. I got tired of the shenanigans of the crowd pleaser Karine Plantadit and although favourites of Ms Tharp, the veterans Keith Roberts, and especially John Selya were no longer the magic makers that they once, probably were, memories of possibility rather than actuality. Once ballet dancers of ease, on watching, they no longer have the physical beauty or expertise to transcend time-age. The solo by Mr Selya and the big duets between he and Ms Farmer were certainly too tainted with aesthetic clumsiness to be acclaimed without prejudice.

Of special note is the contrast between this work and the recent dreary and uninspired offer from The Sydney Dance Company, NEW CREATIONS. Different objectives, perhaps, but dance still, contemporary and balletic. The defining qualities in the differing experiences was the music used and the exquisite costumes. The score provided by Ezio Bosso for the Bonachella work, “6 Breaths”, was uninspiring. The Sinatra score with additional arrangements by Don Sebesky and Dave Pierce were popularly sublime accompaniment to the choreography and dancing.

The costumes were designed for dancers (Katherine Roth) that can move and were going to move, each dancer with three or four variations of costume over the evening, and the design and costume looked as if they had been laboured over by choreographer and designer intimately. The Fashion designers favoured by the Sydney Dance Company (recently, Jordon Askill and Josh Goot) have not yet produced costumes of similar perspicacity or knowledge of the form required by the dancers to succeed as an aesthetic bonus to the work being presented. In contrast to the brilliant design of Ms Roth, the recent Sydney Dance Company costumes were ugly, straight-jackets, in relative contrast, with no real dance aesthetic. I should add another observation and hardly need to say that the budgets for these costumes in both companies were probably radically different. However, the sheer pleasure of watching the Tharp/Roth dancers clothed expertly and aesthetically was a tremendous bonus to the night and the experience. The Sydney Dance Company needs to be more selective in the costume design, especially in the case of NEW CREATIONS where there was no set Design (except video installation).

Back to COME FLY AWAY, It was an altogether light and refreshing experience in the theatre. I enjoyed myself immensely. Great just to watch dance unencumbered. The last time I felt as happy at a dance performance was the Paris Ballet Opera. Different nights but both exhilarating dance.