Stamp out floppy tutus

Santo Loquasto is a man whose art is totally superficial. When Twyla Tharp and Dancers sloped, tapdanced and stampeded their way through "Sue's Leg: Remembering the Thirties," they performed this dance miracle clad in sweat pants, warmups, wide-necked, baggy shirts; exactly like the usual layers of strange quasi-athletic garb that modern dancers wear for rehearsals, except that it was all impeccably tailored in thick, glossy cafe au lait satin. The footwork was Twyla's, but the gleam and a feeling of watching dance being poured onto the floor were Loquasto's.

With any dance or play, to design the surface requires some understanding of what goes on. And with Twyla Tharp and Dancers, that's quite a lot.In fact, there's so much energy zooming around at any given time it's often hard to tell what they're doing. Besides, the company is a strangely assorted group of bodies -- all in perfect shape, but all different shapes. And the choreography is, as Santo Loquasto describes it, "referential" -- one can expect bursts of classical ballet and old shuffles from the vaudeville circuit to happen simultaneously. For the dancer, executing both -- perhaps in midair -- is complicated enough. Loquasto has to give that dancer something to wear which will illustrate the dance, let him or her move, and also look snappy. And he loves it.

He also designs for the theater -- the first of his many awards was an Obie for his costumes for Joseph Papp's production of "The Cherry Orchard" at Lincoln Center. He is at the moment working on a new Lauren Bacall movie, and also enjoys designing for classical ballet -- he's whipping up some Romeo and Juliet costumes for "Misha" (Mikhail Baryshnikov to you and me) for a performance in South America.

"I never thought I'd have opinions about a tutu," he says. "I maintain it's because of my work with Twyla that [I'm] so conscious of what's distracting and what enhances the movement. A floppy tutu is, to my eye, intolerable."

Twyla Tharp and dancers are his most engrossing, and, it seems, enduring project. "It's the most exciting collaboration I have," he says. "That's why I'm rather possessive of it."

It was in "Sue's Leg" that he began giving the company their distinct image, at least in the eyes of the TV audience who saw them on PBS's "Dance In America." It's a glamorous image. Athletic though elegant, loose-limbed and supremely cool, they seem capable of anything. They move together, but they're independent. One thinks of a team, but a snazzy one -- something on the order of the Harlem Globetrotters. They obviously mean business, but in their satin workout clothes they are also quite chic about it.

Santo Loquasto, on the other hand, didn't look the least bit like the Tharpian ideal he has created as he dug out of a taxi in front of the Winter Garden Theater where the company and its technicians mustered the week before their first opening night on Broadway. He didn't glisten. His image wasn't sharp, sleek, and lean so much as shaggy, friendly, and, well, furry. He has a vigorous brown beard, longish hair, dimples and bright eyes. He wore a loose, beige cardigan, baggy corduroys, and carried two huge green garbage bags which rustled as he scuttled into the theater, looking like some beneficient woodland creature.

Nor did the dancers, for that matter, measure up to their TV images. Dressed in the far lumpier and sweatier rehearsal clothes of real life, those of them who were off duty immediately spotted him in the darkened theater and began berating him for carrying their costumes in garbage bags. "What do youm put garbage in?" he teased them, then ducked his head as Twyla herself, dressed in a large baby blue sweater and other garments that looked like castoffs but were probably hers all along, grabbed him for a kiss, her tiny hands gripping his baggy cardigan urgently, and then relayed a stream of incomprehensible technical questions about "When We Were Very Young," their latest work, a two- hour dance/drama Tharp has done in collaboration with playwright Thomas Babe.

Thomas Babe and his eight-year-old daughter, Charissa, who were rehearsing the work together, sat on a bridge over the stage, their lines and nervous asides -- "It's hard to imagine this whole thing is just held up by these wires" -- amplified alike throughout the theater. From time to time dancers appeared and silently slithered through rapid, complicated-looking combinations, shrugged , did it over, peered out at Twyla for criticism, and went offstage again.

"We rarely let anyone in to rehearsals, they're so humiliating," Loquasto chuckled to me.

Actually, it looked more like a garage sale than a rehearsal. But as I watched, things began to take shape. What was spoken from the bridge emerged as a story about childhood, the dancers prowled among stacks of cardboard boxes, then suddenly pushed the piles around. They came apart in neat modular units only to reform farther backstage to allow more dance space. It was all very intriguing. I heard the lines about childhood, and I remembered all the possibilities large cardboard boxes once encompassed. I was drawn in, almost irretrievably, but then Santo Loquasto came pouncing back up the aisle for a chat.

He won't take credit for Twyla Tharp And Dancers' image, which he says grew out of the group's own ideas, looks, and dance styles.

"'Jelly Rolls' ["Eight Jelly Rolls," a Tharp piece he didn'tm design] is very distinctive and I think that has to do with her and her sense of style. When you work with any choreographer, you try to absorb their sense of shape, whether it's Jerry Robbins's pushed-up sweat shirt or Twyla and a sock." So the satin sweat pants, not to mention socks, of "Sue's Leg" "had alot to do with it being my initial experience, and [being] fascinated by what they were wearing, . . . I didn't know that I could beat that, as far as I was concerned, in terms of shape."

Never mind that most modern dancers wear that kind of outfit, and that only Santo Loquasto had the presence of mind to notice what was right in front of his nose. He will only take credit for the satin: "I thought that if we took it and made it rather glamorous, more show-bizzy . . . that might have abstracted the texture rather than shape."

Twyla Tharp and Dancers look more like a group of people than the clusters of anonymous leotarded forms that inhabit most modern dance works. They look as if they're wearing the clothes they arrived at the studio in and just happen to be dancing. Even when these clothes are white satin- and-crepe uniforms, and the dancing is brilliant and precision-timed in Tharp's favorite form, the canon, or in unison, you feel you are watching a bunch of different individuals dance.

This is partially due to the disparity in body types: Rose Marie Wright towers over Christine Uchida; Uchida is chunky and compact like a cheerleader, and Wright is longer and loose with a small head. She sometimes resembles Olive Oyl. Tharp, tiny, dark, and almost furtively quick, often seems to be about to duck and run between the rangy long- distance runner's legs of Tom Rawe. They don't make faces or play to the audience, they just concentrate. But personalities come across.

This is also because Loquasto does make versions of their clothes. One of his more personal touches is the sweater Rose Marie Wright wears in "Sue's Leg" tied around her waist. But the reason all the costumes look like the dancers' clothes is that Santo knows them, or at least their shapes. Though he's designing for a dance, he makes the costumes belong to the dancers.

"I've always tried to design for the individuals. . . . And because it's a company of assorted sizes and shapes, it's almost necessary," he says. With Twyla making dances from everyday movement and Santo studying what they show up in at rehearsals, it seems inevitable that the dancers end up performing highly stylized portraits of themselves.

After studying their needs, sizes and styles, not to mention spending all the time with them that perfect fit demands, Santo, like any good tailor, feels he knows them. "You always know which ones you want to fit first because they're the most easygoing temperaments and because their bodies are sort of natural and normal. . . . And there's a kind of mutual respect, quite obviously. You don't have someone there tapping his foot because he has to go to class in 10 minutes. They'll come at the end of their working day when they're exhausted and stand for an hour."

But it's worth it. He makes dancers look good. Baryshnikov, since working with him when Tharp did "Push Comes to Shove" for the American Ballet Theater, now has him make costumes for some of the standard classical roles he plays, because he likes the way Santo fits him. The admiration is mutual. "He's beautifully proportioned," says Santo. "He goes in and out.

"What happens, it seems to me (although I'm sure I'd be instantly disagreed with) is that modern dancers seem to be straighter. I don't know how that happens. Because I'm a Victorian, I guess, I'm always trying to cinch them in."

Sometimes his candid appraisals of what he has to work with get him in trouble: "I was explaining to someone who was working on [a Tharp dancer's] costume for the first time the other day, and I said, 'You know, [he lowers his voice in a mock tactful tone] it's slightly bowed legs, is the problem,' and [ the dancer] said 'I heard that!'"

Some critics think the dancers look toom snappy. Recently the New York Times's Anna Kisselgoff referred slightingly to the "slick magazine look" of the dancers in their '50s-inspired outfits for "Ocean's Motion."

And Santo reports, "I have heard that audiences complain because they feel the movement's being obscured by the clothing." More often, he says, he designs to suit the movement, accommodating such elements as "those wretched shoes which Twyla goes crazy with" -- lace-up jazz oxfords which offer more support for the Tharp dancers' hardworking feet than the graceful-looking ballet shoes Loquasto prefers.

Nonetheless he says Twyla is willing to compromise and change the movement for the sake of the clothes. "Twyla will not deliberately obscurem [the movement ], but will go for a look and sacrifice the clarity at times," he says. Even if his clothes may dictate a step or a tilt, he doesn't feel he's staging a takeover, but that his work is a contribution, more in the line of a partnership , since he designs primarily to express the way they move. So perhaps by accommodating his outfits Tharp is clarifying her own movement style, rather than the other way around.

"I try to accommodate them, because that's the way it should be. But she often will like what's happening" and choreograph along with the floppy pants or oversize shirt, he reports. "She works out of natural references so much that she doesn't feel that's a real impediment." Still, he maintains his work doesn't change the dances. Dancers move the same in his costumes as out of them, "because I try so much to keep that easy gliding movement . . . a little blouson , a little sloppy."

Though her dances have abstract intentions -- "Ocean's Motion," for example, is built around a canon structure -- the costumes do supply a plot, of sorts. It's not so much that Santo dresses the dancers as specific characters -- except in "When We Were Very Young," which, after all, is part play. It's more that he has such strong feelings for the expressive qualities of the materials he uses that the costumes which come out of them suggest characters. When Twyla talks, he can translate instantaneously into fabric and shape. She's very cerebral, he says, and "talks as fast as she dances."

But when Santo talks about working with different materials, it's as exciting , almost, as watching the dance itself. "If you want it to be languid," he says , you need chiffon. Talking about a chiffon dress that he designed for Natalia Makarova in Jerome Robbins's "Other Dances" he puts his hands up, cupped and moving delicately, as if he is propelling a tiny Makarova around an imaginary stage. But it's not Makarova who inspires such tenderness, it's the dress: it "sort of wafts around her very beautifully, as opposed to a dress that really swings out and has weight. Often you have to do those traditional modern dance dresses which are these heavy jersey dresses, which, when you turn, really swing away from you."

He generally avoids using stretch fabric if he can help it. If he does, it's discreetly, with the Loquasto sense of style. For example, in a ballet Prince Charming's doublet he'll sew the stretch fabric into the seams in a contrasting color, so that it only shows up when stretch is needed, and then as an accent.

Though Tharp choreography looks as though it's expressly made to rupture seams, he usually relies on expert cut and fit to give the dancers freedom of movement in "street" clothes. Of course they're not really street clothes. "We do trousers which just look like trousers, but they're two layers of heavy satin-backed crepe, so that it's pants, but it hangs against their bodies and it swings away," when they turn, he explains, giving a little demonstration of centrifugal force.

As for the stylishness that critic Kisselgoff was finding hard to swallow, Santo finds it delightful, even the fact that it's dated. "As we grow older, as I keep telling Twyla, it will be interesting to catalog our work, and see how that year we did it and what we drew on. We prefer to think that there was something more ongoing about the look, but it's interesting to me that it's going to have a real date to it, and to see how it endures and how it becomes rather charming in its antiquity."

He's charmed by antiquity himself, as you can see when you look at his '20 s-oriented outfits for "Baker's Dozen" and some of his work for ballet. He researches thoroughly. He claims to have every ballet picture book ever printed , goes to the New York Public Library to look at pictures of whatever period he's working on, whether of ballerinas or just ordinary mortals. And "the old costumes are around," he says with the casual shrug only someone who lives in the dance and fashion capital of the country can muster. "Old ballet costumes look so sad," he says, miming a wilted tutu with his hands. "They really turn to rags."

And after all, he points out, traditional ballet costumes in the 19th century were pared-down, danceable versions of the fashions of the times. What's unique about his work is that he brings the same technique to 20th century modern dance , which began -- with Martha Graham dancing barefoot in severe black skirts -- as a puritanical denial of any lushness at all, especially in something as frivolous as clothing. For Twyla Tharp and Dancers he deliberately avoids the taut, elastic-encased, bared-muscle-and-tendon look that has since become de rigueurm for modern dance companies -- "that loft background," as he referred to this style with a sigh. Not only does he take part in the actual choreography with his knowledge of how chiffon, crepe, and satin dance, his work gives dances a certain, well, romance that had been lacking.

He maintains staunchly, though, that the individuality of the dancers' personae comes not from what they wear onstage, but from Twyla Tharp's way of looking at movement, some of which she picks up just watching the dancers themselves. "She draws on them, you know how she did with Baryshnikov. She draws on even the way he walks around with his hands on his hips . . . the quirks of the individual dancer."

To say that Tharp works "referentially" is putting it mildly. Twyla Tharp uses an enormous movement vocabulary. She can dip into dance history, making fun of an entire ballet school of thought with an everyday gesture, referring to any number of different choreographers, from Petipa to whoever invented the Charleston, and keep it within a solid, classical structure. Or at least it seems to be structured. It all happens so fast, you'd have to be a genius to be sure.

This is what is happening in "Push Comes to Shove," and, amazingly, Santo Loquasto's costuming of this ballet was faithful to all these dance ingredients. "In 'Push' we referred to story ballet as well as contemporary clothing and rehearsal clothing (which has always . . . been a sort of springboard)," he says modestly.

What came out of their work was a collection of personages who could only have met in Tharpland: Mikhail Baryshnikov in satin sweatpants and 19th-century dandy's bowler, looking as if he might be doing stunts in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" partnering Martine Van Hammel who seemed to have dressed up for the senior prom in blue crepe with pearls, and a clutch of stray ballerinas stalking in and out in stiff tutus. That the audience was enthralled, alternately gasping in awe and roaring with laughter all the way through, whether it all made sense or not, is a tribute to Tharp's sense of humor and theatricality, not to mention the dancers' prowess. But it was the costumes which made a lot of the jokes, and turned the dancers into delightfully outlandish people and not just brilliant walking, rolling, pirouetting treatises on kinesiology.

It's very hard to tell where Tharp's ideas start and Loquasto's end. Both have an ability to take elements of everyday life and use them to great effect in their concoctions. Tharp, he says, is inspired by "the way people walk down the street," while he gets style ideas from looking at what fellow passengers on the subway are wearing. They're making silk purses out of sow's ears. But each takes the sow's ear very seriously indeed, finding elegance in it as it is. They only make it out of silk for the audience, it seems.

Most recently Santo has done the sets and costumes for "When We Were Very Young." The premise is complicated.It's "about the conundrum of a woman in the middle of the road of life," as Thomas Babe has told The New York Times. The conundrum is seen by the woman's son, and he narrates it to his daughter. As the title suggests, it has a lot to do with childhood. And the sets do, too. They are piles of cardboard boxes, like the imaginary forts and cities children make. There seems to be a lot of make-believe and memory in the production.

When Loquasto came up with the idea of the boxes, Twyla's response was "Oh, no!" She had used cardboard boxes while figuring out the early stages of the choreography. It was too coincidental for comfort. At this point, she seems to like them, however. She should. "I think my budget was $22,000 for scenery and costumes, most of which went for the scenery."

$22,000 for cardboard boxes?

"A lot of boxes," he says. "It's very costly getting the right kind of casters to move them around." Also some have been made of wood, so that dancers can climb on them.

Santo seems to have an almost-intuitive reading of what Tharp needs. The boxes aren't the only example of this phenomenon. "She'll say, 'Oh, it should be lyrical, it should be this,'" he says, chuckling softly. "Like last night there was a classic run-through of all these things they should be, and I said, 'I think there's something in the trunk, a low- backed black leotard. . . .' And she said, 'Oh.'" He imitates a disgruntled pause. "She said, 'Yeah, that's perfect. Unfortunately I wish you hadn't thought of it so quickly.'"

After being called upon several times for more help as we talked, he decided we should retreat. Twyla accused him of abandoning her, but he just laughed. As we sauntered down Broadway to a Howard Johnson's, he told about a recent foray into an antique clothing store. He and an assistant bought some old-fashioned lacy underwear to be worn over bright-colored socks and tights for one section of the dance. The assistant had said, "This is the first Broadway show you've ever had to costume in 45 minutes."

"I don't know if it's going to turn out." Santo muttered after laughing, all too briefly. "We'll see."

Practically on the eve of opening night, he and Tharp are still trying to clarify the way he has dressed up these new ideas of hers. While he talks to me he is thinking about lace, removal of lace and also about a fur coat shopping expedition he is making with Lauren Bacall after lunch. The problem with "When We Were Very Young" is whether to be literal, showing children in children's clothes, or abstract. "I want to make sure that we are always right there, even if it's not specific, that at least you understand there is a change that's happened because this kind of movement demands that change. Or because the story is about love at this particular movement, and young women whirling around in white dresses when they don't really have white dresses."

What dom they have?

"I think they're going to wear white crinoline slips pulled up over their breasts. So they're like little girls in the attic. That's what was in the garbage bags. . . . I wanted to use as much real stuff as possible, just so it was like opening a box in the attic."

The slinky black fringed dress Twyla wears in all the advertisements for the Broadway run is "real," too. He bought it himself off the rack in Saks Fifth Avenue. It's also too big for her, which he likes. "I had to heist it up because it works its way down. It's layers and layers of fringe. I like the picture with her leg out which is . . . going to be the poster. I just slit it up the front for her so she could move her leg."

He has two assistants who shop for him. One concentrates on the area below 34th Street, the other above, encompassing between them both the funky and the classy aspects of New York chic. He also has an excellent costumer, who can alter the clothes and work out "technical problems." "You staff yourself for combat," he says grimly.

His work, however, is design, and shopping is only an adjunct to it. "It's hard, things are thrown out, things don't work, but I will say this, [Twyla's] as hard on herself as she is on anyone she works with, so you never feel you're being picked on. She's focused and disciplined and incredibly driven, which I respond to, but you never feel, when a piece isn't working, that it's 'the costumes are destroying my work. . . .'"

Does he feel the challenge is dealing with exigencies like time, money, and dancer's bodies?

"Yes, but it's mostly her," he says, and from the time of his voice you know he means Twyla, his main concern. "She's the real force."

And it's hard to dress a force, but he must know what he's doing. After opening night, there were still problems to be worked out, he said. But "When We Were Very Young" had its effect. Twyla's solo was very touching, he reported. "I don't want to use a cliche, but it was one of those magic moments, " he said. "We did a matinee and of course there were a lot of older women there. They were weeping openly," he said happily.

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