The Royal Opera House is celebrating International Women’s Day (8 March 2021) with a week of activities: www.roh.org.uk/international-womens-day-2021
Royal Ballet principal dancer Sarah Lamb reflects on her experience of working with American choreographer Twyla Tharp in 2017 for The Illustrated Farewell. Tharp had added a 15-minute pas de deux for Lamb and Steven McRae at the start of an earlier work, As Time Goes By, made for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973. Then, she had used the last two movements of Hayden’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony no. 45. For the Royal Ballet’s new version, she included the first two movements, Allegro Assai and Adagio for the opening pas de deux.
Lamb had long wanted to work with Tharp, with whom she has felt a personal connection since her youth in America, as she recounts to DanceTabs…
What is your earliest recollection of Twyla Tharp?
My mother had taken me to see a performance by Twyla Tharp dancing with Misha Baryshnikov when I was quite young, and we went to the stage and waited for them to come out. They walked together down the sidewalk and my mother, who’s not pushy at all, said ‘Go chase them’. I said, ‘No, they’re leaving’, and she said ‘ They’ll stop for you, you’re a child.’ So I chased them and they did stop and sign my programme. That’s the only autographs I ever collected and I still have it.
I knew a lot about Twyla because my mother had been at Oberlin College when Twyla did a residency there in about 1970-1971, I believe. My mother had done some dancing in the college and found it wonderful and inspiring. She’d noticed that Twyla had a background in ballet and that those who worked best with her had a background in ballet, so my mother thought if she ever had a child interested in dance, ballet was the best foundation. So my history with Twyla goes back before my conception, really![Sarah studied ballet at the Boston Ballet School before joining the company in 1999. She was made principal in 2003. She joined the Royal Ballet in 2004 as a first soloist before becoming a principal dancer in 2006.]
How did she come to choose you and Steven McRae for The Illustrated Farewell? What did she know about you?
I don’t actually know the answer to that, though I think that Kevin [O’Hare, director of the Royal Ballet] had proposed the idea. I think he knew how wonderful we felt our partnership was. I maintain that Steven and I have a connection that is indescribable. You cannot quite articulate how we seem to be thinking the same thing at the same time, responding to the music the same way. Our motivation for doing certain movements in a certain way means that we can improvise together in a way that is unique. I think Kevin did ask her if she would do something for us specifically. I was very humbled that Twyla did know about us as well and that it suited her just fine.
She has said in interviews that she looks for technically strong dancers who are prepared to push boundaries and go beyond technique, so that they can let go of it. ‘The greater the dancer, the more they want to make discoveries.’ (ROH Insight 25 October 2017.) She must have seen that in the two of you.
Yes, I think she’s definitely attracted to people who work nearly as hard as she does – to work as hard as her might be a feat unto itself! She is incredibly driven. That word would very well describe Steven and I’d be flattered if it described me as well. I do know she enjoyed working with us. She was happily impressed with the attention and commitment that we showed. Our time with her was priceless, really.
Were you at first in awe of her?
I can’t deny I was a little bit intimidated and in awe of her. That’s the way it is when we meet people whom we’ve admired for many years. Just to think about her collaborations with the most wonderful dancers and companies… it’s impossible not to recognise that history. Of course, I was infinitely aware of the huge honour of working with her. Her aura is very powerful – it demands respect. She has the highest standards for herself and therefore for everyone else. She’s very direct and she expects the best.
Had you ever seen As Times Goes By? Did she come with the new pas de deux choreography fully prepared?
I’d not seen it, but for Steven and me, the choreography was completely new, as was the music and the costumes. So the time we spent with her, just a few weeks, was a unique collaboration. She came with quite a lot prepared – she’s incredibly well structured with her musicality and how she envisages the result. But I do think we surprised her with what we were able to do. Steven surprised her because she didn’t expect him to have the energy and strength that he has, which is outstanding, really. He was doing things that she didn’t think were possible, which is quite something because Twyla does expect a lot! I don’t think the pas de deux partnering would have been as difficult as it ended up being were it not for the way the two of us worked together. And she amended things for us once she knew the way that we moved, so that it did feel a collaborative creation, in spite of the fact that she came infinitely well prepared.
How did she envisage you in relation to Steven – an equal competitor or a feminine flirt on pointe challenging him?
You can tell from the way that she choreographed for herself that she doesn’t think of women that way. She saw us as equal antagonists or protagonists. I don’t think she was ever interested in characterising a female personality as a foil for a man. She has a great affinity for choreographing for men – think of Misha Baryshnikov, Tetsuya Kumakawa, Steven – but I never felt I was there as a sort of a filigree.
In a way, your pas de deux is very different from the rest of the ballet, where the gender stereotypes are blurred – radical when As Time Goes By was introduced in the 1970s in Joffrey repertoire. What were we intended to make of you when you both appeared on a high platform above the other dancers at the end, watching as they depart. Might you be their parents?
No, not as literal as parents. Maybe their spiritual predecessors. It’s a cycle of life, a generational turnover or evolution. It’s about time going by as a continuation, not necessarily an ending. Twyla renamed it as The Illustrated Farewell – goodbye as fare well, stay well, do well as you go through your life.
There may be a few dancers elsewhere that try and psych out a new choreographer, but absolutely not in this company. I would say in most companies there’s the utmost respect and a real desire to be part of a collaborative process. I wasn’t involved in Crystal Pite’s creation but I’ve never heard such adulation from everyone in the company. Maybe that resistance was Twyla’s experience when she was first with the Joffrey, but now she has such a formidable oeuvre of work that dancers are very respectful of her. I don’t think that sexism comes into it. We know that a new work might be part of a repertoire to come and that being part of the original cast, to have had that experience, is a wonderful legacy to have as a dancer.