Recording Studio for Young Pals Music Productions

Thursday, August 19, 2010


The former ABT principal reunites with Twyla Tharp.
By Gia Kourlas

Photograph: Allison Michael Orenstein

It’s strange how things turn out. Ashley Tuttle isn’t the star of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away, the Frank Sinatra–based dance musical, but a swing—although, to be true, on Wednesday and Saturday matinees, she dances the lead role of Betsy. The former principal of American Ballet Theatre, who left that company after 17 years under rather ambiguous circumstances in 2004, has enjoyed a long association with Tharp. When her ABT days were over, she continued performing the part of Judy in Movin’ Out; after that, unable to find work, she stopped dancing altogether. About a year ago, Tuttle gathered her courage and asked Tharp if she could work with her again. While Come Fly Away closes on September 5, there’s still time to see Tuttle show what being a star is all about.

When did you first meet Twyla Tharp?
I joined ABT in 1987, when I was 16. In ’88, she picked me out of the corps to do a ballet of hers called Bum’s Rush. Part of her company had been brought into ABT at that point. I was dancing with [Tharp dancers] Kevin O’Day and Jamie Bishton and Elaine Kudo and Gil Boggs, who had been a principal at ABT and had gone off and danced with her and was doing both. She chose one other girl, Sandy Brown. Sandy was in the tire. So you saw [only] Sandy’s feet, but you got to see all of me and I was very flattered, but I was pretty much frozen: How could I be this young and be a new member of the company? At that point, the company was about 100 people. I wonder why she chose me. What stuck out to her? I’ve never asked.

What had you seen of hers before that?
Push Comes to Shove on television. I’m sure I’d seen Sinatra Suite, but I was pretty young, so it didn’t necessarily register as much as when I saw Swan Lake or The Nutcracker as a kid. From the minute I watched her works, what I was drawn to was the casual classical dance, if that makes any sense. I found she always helped my ballet. And that’s not to say that she’s not “ballet,” because she cares about that technique, but the fact that she likes movement—it’s not so straight—I always found my ballet dancing in Bayadère or something improved. It put the focus for me back on movement. Growing up at the School of American Ballet—I only went for one full term but I was there for several summers—the Balanchine approach is very much about how you get in and out of a step. The glissade or how you approach the big turn is what you focus on—not the big turn. I think you get so focused on doing everything perfectly that you can lose the concept of transition. So Twyla was very much about how to get in and out and, “Don’t let me see the prep, and if I am going to see a prep, you’re going to turn the complete opposite way than the prep looks like you’re going to, because I want to fool people’s eye.” I find still to this day that this is what I enjoy most about Twyla: The challenge to be technically strong, but a little casual.

Do you miss dancing her repertoire?
I do. After [performing an early version of Come Fly Away in] Atlanta, we worked on some movement for her for a while; that’s really fun. When she’s in the studio dancing, and we’re trying to copy her, or, “Do what I just did but backwards and from the other side”—that’s thrilling. Creating movement with her and seeing where it goes? Very challenging. This fall, a group of us worked with her and she put me back in pointe shoes. The stuff she does on pointe is great. Outside of Balanchine, I don’t think any other choreographer uses a pointe shoe like Twyla. You have to be strong, but able to slide; there’s the technique of rolling through your feet. It’s great.

Is it the articulation that she focuses on?
She does, but she does that anyway. When you see her in her tennis shoes, she’s all about the way you use your feet. She danced on pointe. Some of the male choreographers don’t necessarily have that sensation, so she is able to come up with some really cool vocabulary with the pointe shoe that I don’t necessarily see that often.

How would you compare musicality in terms of dancing Balanchine and dancing Tharp?
In Balanchine, the steps equal the music to me. It’s almost visually seeing the music. Twyla will go in so many different places musically; sometimes she’s exactly on what you would imagine [the music to be] and other times she’s completely counter. I think what’s really interesting about Twyla is that she’ll make pieces on other pieces of music. She might choreograph something to a piece of rap music and then she’ll put it on Schubert. What she wants is the attack, the pulse that you brought to it physically. The juxtaposition is very interesting.

I don’t suppose you can talk too much about ABT and why you left.
[Laughs] No. It was not what I had planned [for] the way my career could have ended at ABT. It was premature for me emotionally, and it was very hard, but I think I learned so much from it. I have to look at all challenging things as positives. With Twyla, for instance, she’s going to push you to a point that you don’t necessarily know you’re capable of handling physically. I think life will do that as well. Sometimes it will push you places so you can grow. So it was a difficult time for me. I loved being in ABT. It was my family. I was there for 17 years. I’ve [since] become closer with a lot of City Ballet people and people at other companies and it’s interesting. What ABT brought me was such a gift. The diversity. [Mikhail] Baryshnikov was the director when I joined, and he’s so involved in wanting to challenge himself and other dancers with different choreography. It wasn’t always about, What’s going to sell the most tickets? When I sit back and think, I worked in a room with Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris and Martha Graham’s people and that ABT brought all of that to me? Not many classical companies have that kind of range. To see all the different ways of approaching dance has been very interesting. I love that about ABT. But my time was ended, and I had to move on, and that was challenging.

You were in Movin’ Out at the time.
Yes, for six months, I was still doing Movin’ Out. So I still had dance to go to, and then Movin’ Out ended and I struggled. I had some health challenges for a few years, and if I want to be honest about it I’m sure that what’s going on emotionally can manifest itself physically. I didn’t have work dancing. I couldn’t find work dancing.

Did you try?
I tried. I didn’t necessarily go to auditions. I auditioned once in my life at ABT and that was it. Twyla asked me to do Movin’ Out because we had been part of her company that was touring. I don’t sing. I really don’t sing. [Laughs] It’s so sad. If I could just carry a tune…. That’s a little bit of a struggle. I do believe the role I played on Broadway was very suited to me—Judy in Movin’ Out—but there aren’t a lot of Judys in Broadway shows. I don’t think people necessarily think I can put on heels and strut around. They think, Oh, the ballerina. So a lot of doors were closed in that way as well. But I had been volunteering up in Harlem for [youth organization] Groove with Me. I taught dance and was on their board—and still am—and that was a very interesting time. I wasn’t dancing but I was teaching little girls the positions, and I fell back in love with dance in a way that was so different than when I first experienced it as a kid.

Really? How so?
I always loved dance, and I never questioned if I should be a dancer. My parents were like, “Do you want to move to New York at 15?” Yes! High school or the prom never crossed my mind. But when [dance is] gone in a way that maybe you weren’t expecting, you reevaluate, and now the act of moving, of physically dancing—not achieving this role or that role—is such a gift to me. You can get caught up in being perfect; I think a lot of dancers have this idea of, Well, I didn’t do this turn perfectly! You’re not very kind to yourself. I think my time away helped me see: Be kind to yourself and enjoy it. There are certain moments in my last performance—I had a few weeks of knowing, before my last performance, and I mentally said to myself, kind of like a computer, you have to bookmark certain moments. I had the presence of mind in the moment. My last show was Romeo and Juliet. One [moment] was standing on the balcony and looking down, and I saw the entire orchestra and all the bows were going the same way. It was like an ocean. Another one was the curtain coming down and not wanting it to be done yet. Juliet is not given a lot of music at the end of the ballet. You’re like, But wait—I want another chunk. I’m not ready yet! [Laughs] I wish I had had more presence of mind during my career to bookmark moments because I loved them; I really have no negative memories at all, but they maybe aren’t as etched in my memory as well as I would have liked them to be. So this time, I’m like, Remember going to the Tonys. Bookmark it. Because I feel very blessed to have a second opportunity [to dance].

How long did you stop dancing, and what did you do?
Three or four years. I worked in a little bit of commercial real estate. It’s hard. You don’t make money until you have a deal happen. Dancers are very mature in certain ways—you leave home at 15, you tour the world—but in other environments you’re seen as a child. I’m going to interviews with big corporations and hearing, “You didn’t go to college. You can only work with us if you have two years of college.” I’m like, What about life experience? I can talk about China! They all found me interesting and all that but there’s this red tape, which I’m sure plenty of people have experienced. As a dancer I hadn’t. Whenever I was given a limitation in dance I was like, Really? I’ll show you. You think I can’t do that role? I’m going to practice it and focus and get the opportunity. So to enter the real world and be told that I just didn’t have any education? I’m 39 now, so I was 34, 35, and I was like, What am I going to do? Luckily I finished high school. But do I want to go to college for four years? How am I going to pay for it? A lot of dancers hit this wall.

What did you do after real estate?
I worked in construction as a project manager for a renovation company. I learned so much about personalities, not just about the work. How do you keep the client happy and the boss happy and the construction guys happy? A difficult time. I’m sitting there cleaning out construction sites, and I’ve got a toilet brush, and I’m like, But I used to have a wand and a crown! Where’s my tutu? [Laughs] But I feel I’m pretty balanced egowise, and I don’t mean to toot my own horn, because I’m not like that, but you have to do what you have to do, and this is a hard city. But there are moments where you hit a wall of reality. And strange little things—when you’re a ballerina, people come to your stage door, and donors are like, “Can we take you out for a drink?” and then I’m in construction changing light bulbs for the donors. Not the actual donors—I never ran across the same person, but the type. It’s been really eye-opening. I feel very grounded in the reality of you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I’ve got compassion for everybody. The guy who’s driving the bus isn’t less than Donald Trump.

Has that changed your dancing?
I feel there’s more of a weight to my dancing, or a stronger presence in a sense. Maybe I’m not as waiflike? I don’t know. I can’t see myself; it’s more of what I feel. Maybe instead of feeling like a little girl, I feel more like a woman. My legs don’t go as high, but my joints…I don’t feel old. After this show, I want to keep dancing. I found that I need to be around like-minded people—I need to be around artists. It makes me feel not as much of a misfit. [Laughs] The thing I can say is dance is the language I speak best, and I haven’t been able to speak it in a while. I was able to finally speak. I feel like sometimes maybe I shout too much now: “I can dance!” But I’m just really enjoying it and feel very blessed to be given this opportunity. I didn’t have to disappear. It’s on my terms now.

Did you approach Twyla when you heard she was working on this show?
I had gotten to a point where I felt confident enough to put myself out there again. On occasion I would sneak away from construction and get to a late 4:30 class. I e-mailed Twyla and said, “I’m interested in dancing. Do you have anything? I’ll dance for free. It’s not about the money, but I need this for my soul, and if anything what I’ve realized about not being in the dance world is that I need to be in the dance world.” I got an e-mail back saying, “I’m having an audition for this new show I’m doing, so you’re welcome to come.” [Takes a deep breath] I’m like, Okay, I’ve got an audition. Pull myself together. She obviously hasn’t seen me in a few years, so it’s not outrageous for her to say that to me by any means, and she’s heard that I haven’t been dancing, and Twyla is very much about fitness and being in shape. I’m sure part of her wanted to make sure I was. The unfortunate thing was that the audition was the next week. [Laughs nervously] I was working as hard as I could—sit-ups in my living room, the whole thing, and I went to the audition. After, all she said to me was, “Keep working.” I knew I wasn’t presenting myself as the best dancer in the world, but it was like I was home. I was with my people.

What happened?
I got a callback to the next audition. And then she was Twyla: “Do it this way, do it that way.” Twyla will push you, which I adore. She was on me, and pushing, and I appreciated that, and then she offered me a swing position in the Atlanta show. I was just so honored to be back in her world and dancing.

Did you have moments of insecurity coming back into the world like that?

When I was watching rehearsals a year ago, you seemed in control.
You’re so sweet. I am so neurotic. [Laughs] I’m extremely insecure. A friend of mine who was at both auditions had said, “You came to that first audition, and you were kind of out of shape.” I was huffing and puffing and turning bright red and falling over, but they said, “You came back two weeks later, and you had pulled yourself together more.” I had needed time. So Twyla had me as a swing. I put on my heels. I was swinging all three ensemble dancers. One dancer hurt herself, so on the second day Twyla said, “Okay, you’re in—this is your spot.” Now besides being insecure that I haven’t been dancing, I’m also doing something that’s not my first thing. “You’ve got to be really flirty and sexy and pop your hip.” So definite moments of insecurity. Should I have come back to this? I have a touch of stage fright as well, but when we got to, I was on for eight shows a week. It was great. I could find my path again. If there’s any critique of ABT, it was [about] time—you weren’t on enough. You might do Swan Lake once or twice a year, and then there’s a lot of pressure that it has to be better than it was the last time. So the Broadway part of it was great—you get to be on a lot.

How did you start playing Betsy?
Twyla asked me to do a different part. This part was much more pink. And other insecurities came up. I know how to play this because I have certain mannerisms, let’s say, or ways to do it.

At ABT, you were often cast as the young girl—the innocent. That’s what you mean by “pink”?
Yes. The ingenue. She said, “Well, let’s see something different,” so then I’m trying to find other ways and not fall back into what’s comfortable, and on top of it I’m older. I’m not the young girl. And I think outside of [cast member] Alex Brady, I’m the oldest person in the second cast, and it seems like I’m playing the youngest character. Betsy is very young or the least worldly, so that’s an interesting dynamic, because I’m…

You’ve lived.
Well, I used to be the 16-year-old, the baby, and so I’m like, How am I going to play pink and do it differently and be older? It’s had its own set of challenges. I’m classically trained, so with that comes a certain carriage: Maybe the character would have been more suited to being performed by someone a little more awkward. I wore glasses for awhile, and I tried being kind of nerdy, but I think ultimately, possibly, my carriage made me look a little more elegant. It’s not bad or good; I love the first cast, and the way they do it. For me, it has been challenging.

But I think the second act is cool, because the part isn’t so pink.
Right, right. I had to make some different choices [from the first cast] that Twyla and I talked about. I have a different costume. It’s a little more grownup. And my lingerie [in the second act] has touches of black because, as she said, “Your Betsy has lived a little differently.” I choose to wear heels more in the second act, which I think gives me a more womanly look. Having ballet shoes on may make you look younger. And the second act is really interesting; I play her as if she’s new in town. Maybe she’s a Southern belle; she falls in love with this nerdy guy [Marty], but ultimately, it’s real love. . At the end of the first act, you’re mad because he’s acting like a stereotypical guy—he doesn’t want to deal with commitment, babies, family, marriage, and he kind of freaks out.

I think you’re funny in that scene.
Thank you. By the end, in “Valentine,” when we’re both are alone, I think it’s a mature commitment. It’s fun to play with, but it’s challenging. Then there are numbers like “My Way.” It’s such a beautiful piece. I tend to play that just as I feel the dance is—it’s elegant. But on a personal level, I have been on such a journey. It’s really, really cool to look back, but trust me: If you had talked to me years ago, I would have been like, “It’s awful, nothing’s working out.” Now I’m in a different place, and it’s all great. ABT—I haven’t seen them this season; I have a lot of friends in the company. I’m sad about [not dancing] the repertory. I’m sad to see one of my coaches, Georgina [Parkinson], pass away. She was very supportive of me and helpful in my career. Of course, I love coaching.

Would you like to coach one day?
I like teaching, but I would love to coach. I think dance has definitely become more commercial, and I don’t know if that has to do with what’s on television and all that, but I was really taught by Misha and Georgina that the way you first step onstage and the way you open a door is important. I would love to help dancers with all the little things that give texture to a role. I don’t think it’s my time yet, because I still want to dance. I don’t know where I would do it. You never know! I know a lot of principals over the years have left in ways that maybe weren’t the way they hoped or envisioned, but they’ve come back and started teaching the summer programs and things. I would like to share some of that knowledge as well.

How does Tharp push dancers?
I’ve never seen any other choreographer come in the studio at 6 or 7 at night, like at Ballet Theatre, and everyone in the room dances full-out. Even though it’s the end of the day. Maybe it’s her actual being. She demands it, but not verbally. Her presence says: “I’m here, you’re gonna dance.” And people do. You go full-out. But that’s probably because she’s full-out. She’s completely present and [gives] 120 percent when she’s sitting there or when she’s dancing with you or watching. It’s not superficial: She’s comparing it to what it looked like the last time. Where are you as a person? Where can you push? It’s all-encompassing. She demands no more of us than she does of herself.

What will you do after this?
I don’t know. If Twyla has any other projects and is interested in using me, I would love to do that. I’m getting some offers to teach a little bit outside the city. I would love to do some Nutcrackers. I’m putting out feelers. Last time, for whatever reasons, I withdrew from the dance community on such a big level. I stopped going to class and seeing things, but this time I can’t withdraw. I need to be present, because this is my love. I just want to dance.

What are your days like with this show?
Because I’m not in the first cast, my days are a little more open. Well, it depends. Today we had two hours of rehearsal for the guys. People have started having vacation time. Twyla shows have a tendency to have injuries, so we’ve had quite a bit. On Wednesdays, I do the matinee, and of course, I have to be here for every show. By half-hour, so 7:30 until the end.

Because you’re a swing?
Yes. You never know what could happen. Somebody could go down immediately, and you’d have to put on a costume. But the show is short; in the sense of your life, it’s over by ten, so it’s not horrible, and the salary’s great. There’s health insurance, which wasn’t always there [for me] in the last few years.

Why do you think it’s closing?
I don’t know. Obviously ticket sales have not been through the roof. It’s a big house. It’s strange to me, because I think it’s a beautiful show. It’s a dance show like Movin’ Out, but not like typical Broadway dance shows. It has a different kind of energy behind it. I don’t know why it didn’t catch as much flame as it should have, because the people who come love it. Especially the older generation. Their eyes water during “My Way,” and everyone seems to enjoy it. At Movin’ Out in Chicago, we learned a big lesson about how you have to slowly feed a Broadway audience, because they’re not necessarily used to seeing storyline progress through movement. Ballet audiences are more used to that, except they don’t really understand what’s going on. There are huge mime scenes in Swan Lake, let’s say, and I’m sure a lot of the audience doesn’t know what it means, but they go with it. I think the Broadway audience is like, What’s going on? Maybe people aren’t able to understand right away. It’s strange to me that there would still be a question. I think certain parts of the show are beautiful. “One for My Baby” is stunning. “That’s Life” is pretty. I think “Take Five” is great.

I do too, I absolutely love that dance.
I think it’s really cool. And “My Way,” of course, is beautiful. I haven’t seen Memphis and all of these things. I don’t know why they’re doing so well. I don’t know if it has to do with the way it was advertised? I don’t know if people thought they were coming to something that was more talk instead of dance? It’s unfortunate that the show wasn’t acknowledged as much as I had hoped in the Tony nominations. But in Movin’ Out, we were acknowledged as actors in the Broadway community, and that was such an honor, and they still did that. They nominated [Come Fly Away’s] Karine Plantadit. Good for dance. If we can look at a bigger picture, it’s great that dancers are being acknowledged as actors.

How do you train now?
I take class every day—or try to anyway—at Steps with Willy Burmann, usually, or Alex Tressor. He’s Krammy’s [School of American Ballet faculty member Andrei Kramarevsky] son. Both teachers have been very supportive of me over the years, especially when I would be coming to class not feeling well and not being able to get through it because I felt so sick. Obviously, Willy was there when my ABT career ended, so he knew what I was going through, and Alex Tressor is a very strong individual. They’re both very much about a positive outlook, and when upsetting things happen, it’s hard to always maintain that. When you have people around you who are bright lights—you know how they say you need to have so much sunlight in your life for the vitamin D? I think personalities are like that too; they can make you healthier. As you know, when you do something everyday, you don’t necessarily see your progress; at least in my case, I keep raising the level. It’s like you do your first show—well, that was great because it was your first one. Your second show, there’s always a problem because you’ve raised your expectation, but you don’t have the experience to get to that level, so you feel like a bad second show. It’s nice to have guidance around you.

Do you do anything outside of dance?
I was doing Bikram yoga for a while. It’s so hot. [Laughs] I tend to get a little frustrated in yoga. I get angry, and it’s the opposite of what yoga’s about, but I physically struggle: I have a hard time standing in parallel because I’m turned-out, and I don’t have the upper-body strength for some of the poses. Or you’re supposed to be parallel with your back [bent] forward and I spent my whole life turned-out with my back up. I get so hostile! That perfection comes out: I should be proficient in any physical goal I have, and I’m not. It’s hard. I ran for a while, but then I would get mad at myself because I was gasping for air. It’s been a struggle to find something else to stay in shape with, especially when I wasn’t dancing. Ultimately, for the way I am—my bone structure and my muscle tone—ballet is what sits best with me. Once again, to go to ballet and to be on top of it and present instead of, Oh I have to be in it, I’ve got to be perfect—it’s such a nice feeling. Now, I port de bras to the barre and I just enjoy the stretching, and I can see the humor, and I can laugh at myself a lot more. There are still those days when you’re hard on yourself, but I feel well-rounded about it now.

I’m curious about how your ego has handled this: How do you deal with the difference of being at that top place at ABT and getting a job as a swing dancer?
There have been moments, of course, where I was like, Take a deep breath. Remember why you’re here. As long as I kept my purpose—to dance—all of the other stuff you can put aside. The only things that are really harmful to a dancer is injury or when your body’s not doing what it wants. But things like, at ABT I had my personal dresser, and now I’m sharing a dressing room with other people—I’m enjoying being part of the community. Being in the ensemble in Atlanta, I had a blast, because there was community onstage. Last night, I had a great time in the ensemble. The pressure’s different. For instance, in “Take Five,” as Betsy, I get nervous doing some of those pirouettes, because the lighting is very difficult, and you have to turn to the partner’s rhythm and not your natural rhythm. I can really stress out, but in the ensemble, I have a little bit more freedom. It’s not like you’re by yourself doing this turn or like [Balanchine’s] Theme and Variations. It’s fun to feel the community, the support and the freedom. Ultimately the goal was to feel that freedom no matter what you’re dancing. I put the limits on myself. I should feel just as free doing “Take Five,” but that’s something I’m working toward. But yeah, sure, there are moments when people might make a comment, “Well, you’re not the star of the show.” Little things like that. And you just have to be, “No, it’s not about that.” I think I’ve been okay with the ego thing. It’ll be interesting where things will go from here. Sometimes I feel a little like Cassie in Chorus Line. It’s hard to get a job because people say, “You did this, so we can’t offer you that.” But I just want to dance. This winter Keith [Roberts, who performs the role of Hank in Come Fly Away] and I danced Carmen at the Met Opera.

Christopher Wheeldon choreographed that, right?
Yes. We had two little sections. We opened the opera and did a little thing in the second act. But to be in that theater—I had thought the night I left after Romeo and Juliet and saw the light on center stage…

The ghost light?
Yeah. I’d taken my name off my door and packed up all my things and thought, Well, I’ll never be here again. And it was hard! [Pauses] Talking about it, I get a little choked up. But then I got to be back on that stage, and it was such a blessing. I got to see the beautiful house and the crew, all the stage guys were like, “Hey, what’s up?!?” It was such a nice way to go back and know that I can stand on the stage again and have my goodbye and a bow, and it will be okay.

Come Fly Away continues at the Marquis Theatre through Sept 5.

Read more:

No comments:

Post a Comment