"The body says what words cannot."
The late dance legend Martha Graham may have professed this philosophy, but one of her students, 70-year-old Tony Award-winning choreographer Twyla Tharp, breathed life into it with her latest ballet-meets-modern-meets-musical production, "Come Fly Away." The salute to love's forays and frustrations, told through choreography to Frank Sinatra songs, made its Pittsburgh premiere Tuesday at the Benedum Center, Downtown, as the first show of the Pittsburgh CLO season. It runs through Sunday.
The national touring company peels back the wall of a '40s-flavored nightclub, complete with bar, cocktail tables, live band and shelves of margarita glasses and champagne flutes. For 80 minutes (with no intermission), audience members become other faces in the crowded room, watching as about a dozen or so dancers embark on an evening of steamy encounters, rocky rendezvous and flirty first kisses.
It opens with a recording of Sinatra crooning an a cappella rendition of "Stardust," as dancers trickle into the club donning short slinky dresses and suits with fedoras reminiscent of ones worn by Ol' Blue Eyes. Their interactions color the jazz joint with a realistic aura: Some down (imaginary) drinks at the bar, a couple nuzzle cheek-to-cheek at a corner table, and a few men eye potential dance partners.
Like other crossover ballets by Ms. Tharp (such as the 2002 "Movin' Out" to Billy Joel tunes), no lines are spoken. And who needs them? Dancers' gestures, facial expressions and character-to-character chemistry clearly convey the loose narratives Ms. Tharp assigned to each performer, while leaving some room for interpretation. This adds to the sense that audience members are club patrons watching the social scene unfold. If they were doing so at a real club, they wouldn't be able to hear other couples' conversations over the music. As in the show, they must decipher body movement to guess the scoop.
Sinatra's lyrics and the accompanying choreography further unlock the stories tied to each character. "Let's Fall in Love" sets the stage for a bartender to try to woo a bubbly brunette. Through clumsy lifts and comical-yet-cute stumbles, the pair preciously embodies the enthusiasm and unease that can color a budding relationship. In "I've Got a Crush on You," a man pirouettes and pleads for a woman -- as she glides about the dance floor in the arms of another man. Aggressive partnering tosses and sensual embraces highlight the strain and uncertainty of a duo in "That's Life."
To Ms. Tharp's credit, she doesn't just feature a couple for one song and dance and then shuffle the performers back into the ensemble. Pairs are revisited throughout the performance, allowing the audience to watch their affection grow, crumble or be cast aside for new admirers. These details make the characters more three-dimensional and the show worth seeing again and again.
The athleticism and acting of the artists -- two with ties to Pittsburgh, Stephen Hanna and Ron Todorowski -- carried such conviction and crisp execution of Ms. Tharp's melting pot of ballet, lyrical, modern and jazz choreography. The heartbeat of the performance came from the big band-style instrumental ensemble, which resurrected Sinatra's classics with elegance and some punch.
Although the Sinatra song book dates back decades, the production was impressively fresh and contemporary. The costuming and scenery featured retro hints, but the stories they helped express could have taken place at a jazz cafe in the '50s or last week at a nightclub in the Strip District.
"Come Fly Away" may be straight dance, but the characters and choreography are crafted with such charisma and depth that a longtime love of the art form is not a prerequisite to appreciate it. It's for anyone who's ever stomached the butterflies of a crush, who's played hard to get, who's longed for someone else's sweetheart or who's loved deeply and lost deeply -- and isn't afraid to lose and love again.
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com.