MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ The bouncer at Miami's new nightspot is a compact, silver-haired woman who looks six dancers up and down when they walk in the door.
Twyla Tharp approves the plaid shirt tails peeking out from under one man's gym hoodie. She tells a woman in a long red skirt that she's lovely, but needs to rethink how she has twisted her hair. Then she orders the three couples to pose.
Tharp's "NIGHTSPOT" opens this weekend. Her new ballet, commissioned by the Miami City Ballet, is a collaboration with British rocker Elvis Costello.
Black and red posters around the city promise "a ballet about the dark side of love." The six principal dancers rehearsing with the choreographer in a Miami Beach studio either face off or coil around each other at her commands to pose in their red, street-styled costumes.
The nightspot where their dance takes place "could be in the future, could be on the planet Jupiter," Costello said in an interview from New York. "We were just trying to arrive at a title evocative of a night club, people spotted at a swanky nightspot. It's not trying to marry us to an overt narrative. I just didn't want it to be too fixed in time by calling it 'Disco' or something very specific."
A total of 18 dancers will perform in the 38-minute piece between an onstage nine-piece band on risers and a 32-piece orchestra in the pit.
Miami City Ballet's founder, Edward Villella, and executive director Pam Gardiner sought out Costello after his 2005 concert in Miami Beach to propose scoring a new dance for them. The rock musician had recently released his first orchestral composition, "Il Sogno," the score to an Italian ballet production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Tharp joined the project soon after, drawn to the rhythmic, speedy dancers Villella — a former principal dancer at New York City Ballet — has trained in the tradition of Georges Balanchine, who for decades defined the artistic stylings of NYCB and was one of the 20th century's greatest choreographers.
"He has built here a company that is a company — a very unusual thing, to have a group that is really a solid group and not just an influx of strangers who pass in the night," Tharp said about Villella.
She tersely deflects questions seeking clues about the new ballet in an interview at Miami City Ballet's offices. But when she talks about the dancers and the audience, she doesn't stop moving, rolling back and forth in her conference room chair. She demonstrates with her hands what she wanted to see in Villella's dancers: precise movements building from a simple repetition to a more complex variation that quickly sends her hands and forearms swinging in the space before her.
"NIGHTSPOT" is Tharp's first new work since her productions on Broadway, the Tony-winning "Movin' Out" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" — two narratives based on the songs of Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. Unlike those two works, "NIGHTSPOT" is not a direct adaptation of Costello's songs.
For research, though, Tharp studied everything in Costello's varied musical catalog, along with books by Carl Hiaasen and other Miami histories. The two artists traded MP3s as the project developed.
"She would play just a few bars of something and say, 'Could you write something that just said this?' That's a perfect way to start to write," Costello said.
Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi created the costumes with layers of T-shirts, hoodies, skirts and shrugs over leotards and tights. Hibiscus red was the only color that made sense for a dance in Miami, he said.
"The music has a blaring, hot, red quality about it," he said while at Miami City Ballet for a costume fitting in December.
He briefly considered tagging each couple with a number, as though they were racing, he said. "It doesn't look like it's taking place in a tango place or a polka place or a ballroom thing. It looks like a competition of ballet, of ballet-dancing couples."
Tharp doesn't quite see that image.
"In the opening scene, where you have two dancers who obviously have their eye on another couple, … the word competitive is fine, but there are no prizes given out for the best dancer," she said. "They are all the best dancers."
Costello set up the piece as a test of allegiances. "That tension, the common thing you observe in any dance place," he said. "People are attracted to one another, attracted to people they shouldn't be."
For a group photo a week before the premiere, Tharp drops to one knee in front of her six principal dancers. Her intensely blank expression — her signature for portraits — looms in the foreground before their lithe, costumed forms. She's giving nothing else away.
"NIGHTSPOT" opens Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. The dance is expected to travel to Los Angeles in the fall.
On the Net:
Miami City Ballet: www.miamicityballet.org
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.