Ashley Tuttle

The former ABT principal reunites with Twyla Tharp.

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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 Bayadre 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.

Check out our past coverage of Ashley Tuttle:
Holding court ABT's divine Ashley Tuttle finds inspiration in Balanchine—and basketball.
Turning points The good-bye girl.

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