During the almost four months she spent in Atlanta since last spring rehearsing her new ballet, "The Princess and the Goblin," legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp didn’t see much of the city. There was too much to do: Hit the gym every morning for stretching and weight training, then on to the Atlanta Ballet studio on Marietta Boulevard for six hours of rehearsal.
"When I’m working, I’m not sightseeing," she says.
Photograph by Raftermen
Then she broke her foot. But Tharp, seventy, is not one to let either age or a walking boot slow her progress. "Physically she may not be able to jump as high," says Sarah Hillmer, a teacher at Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education and Tharp's assistant throughout the production of "The Princess and the Goblin." "But she is out there showing everything. She’ll take off her tennis shoes and say, 'No, I want it like this.'"
Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall and Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director André Lewis first approached Tharp in 2010 with the idea of commissioning a ballet. For years Tharp had longed to create a feature-length adaptation of "The Princess and the Goblin," the nineteenth-century fairy tale by George MacDonald about a young princess who delves deep into the underworld to defeat an army of goblins who are staging a revolt against humans. Atlanta Ballet would team with Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet to split the $1.3 million price tag for the production, with an Atlanta debut on February 10 and a Winnipeg opening in fall 2012.
Tharp had first read "The Princess and the Goblin" twenty years ago and was captivated by the story's plucky female heroine. "She's one of the earliest female heroes in literature who remains triumphant in the end without being penalized," says Tharp. She thought nineteenth-century composer Franz Schubert would make an ideal musical companion to MacDonald's story. "There is a quality in Schubert of what we might call 'goodness,' which is something that MacDonald had in spades," Tharp says.
In her forty-seven-year career, Tharp has collaborated with Milos Forman, David Byrne, and Mikhail Baryshnikov and choreographed "Movin' Out," the blockbuster Broadway show based on Billy Joel's songbook. For Atlanta Ballet executive director Arthur Jacobus, having Tharp premiere a full-length ballet in Atlanta is unprecedented, garnering national press and raising Atlanta Ballet’s profile. "It means a lot for the image of Atlanta as an arts and culture center," he says.
Hiring Tharp for "The Princess and the Goblin" is just one component of Atlanta Ballet's plan to bring edgier, contemporary choreographers to Atlanta. "We wanted to reposition the brand so that we’re viewed as a much more contemporary, energetic organization and not viewed as a staid, purely classical ballet company," Jacobus says. "We have a sense that we’re beginning to penetrate a new market," he continues, pointing to the sellout crowds for "Ignition: New Choreographic Voices" at the Alliance Theatre last May.
Some of that new, younger demographic will also be visible on "The Princess and the Goblin's" stage. Of the thirty-four-member cast, thirteen roles are played by Atlanta dancers between the ages of eight and fifteen. Tharp cast them herself from Atlanta Ballet's Centre for Dance Education.
"I was dumbfounded at their level of concentration and their level of energy. They don't take a union break every five minutes on the hour," Tharp says with a laugh. With her graying pixie cut and her owlish glasses, Tharp has the look of the world's hippest grandma, the one who takes you to rock concerts but doesn't suffer fools lightly. "They have been fantastic troupers," says Tharp. "The underworld doesn't stand a chance against these kids."