A full century since his birth and 18 years since his passing, Frank Sinatra can still thrill. "The Voice" redefined popular music in the 20th century; so, it was not too surprising that in the early 1980s, in the twilight of Sinatra's career, another icon, choreographer Twyla Tharp, chose to pair some of Sinatra's greatest hits with modern American dance. Even Sinatra, then in his late 60s, was taken aback by the critical acclaim of the original five Tharp interpretations, then known as the Sinatra Suite. Three decades later, the quintet has grown to nine interpretations and is known simply as Nine Sinatra Songs: "Softly, As I Leave You," "Strangers in the Night," "One For My Baby," "Something Stupid," "All the Way," "Forget Domani," "That's Life" and "My Way (two versions)."
"Is Nine Sinatra Songs popular? Well, we've more than doubled [ticket sales] compared to where we were last year for our winter repertoire," said Meredith Stead, marketing director for Ballet Idaho. "People who don't attend the ballet, ever, have stopped and said, 'Wait a minute? Sinatra? Which songs? How do I get tickets?'"
The answer is simple: hurry. It's a sure-bet sell-out. But the challenge of securing Twyla Tharp's OK to stage the Sinatra program has been as Sinatra himself sang in "One For My Baby": a "long, long road."
"We had to be ready to ask for it," said Ballet Idaho Artistic Director Peter Anastos "I've been around for a long time, and I'm proud of my company. And, quite simply, I was ready to ask."
That inquiry coincided with a fall 2015 visit to Ballet Idaho from John Selya, American Ballet Theatre choreographer and, himself, an acclaimed performer (Selya was nominated for a Tony Award for Tharp's Broadway production Movin' Out).
"For Peter to ask us about a Tharp production and, particularly, Nine by Sinatra, shows great taste. It recognizes that he wants quality work," said Selya. "These Sinatra pieces are a match made in heaven. When you first heard about it, you may have thought, 'Hmmm. Odd bedfellows.' But it works, I never get tired of it. Twyla's ballet doesn't just echo the lyrics of the song. She adds something, reflecting the feeling without imitating the words."
Selya is more than Tharp's and the American Ballet Theatre's liaison for Ballet Idaho's Ballet Idaho program—he's the director.
"This is an extraordinary commitment for Ballet Idaho," said Anastos. "One of the wrinkles when we finally acquired the ballet is that Twyla Tharp insists on 70 hours of rehearsal. We often don't do that much for a full-length ballet. The complexity and depth of this program requires the time to do it right and that's why John is here."
It's not as if the long shadow of Twyla Tharp doesn't stretch from her home-base of New York City all the way to Boise.
"All these years later, she's still an enigma to me, too," said Selya with a laugh. "She came into my life in 1988 when I joined the American Ballet Theatre. The more I get to know, the more I don't know her. But I know how intelligent and complicated she is. And now that I have the privilege of setting this work, I truly appreciate Twyla's unwillingness to settle for the predictable. She's very engaged, absolutely committed and an absolute workaholic."
Which leads to Tharp's unconventional process of allowing dancers to collaborate on the construction of performance. Some legendary choreographers (hint: Jerome Robbins) who are extremely specific in every movement and as a results their ballets have never changed, long after the creator's passing.
"When I was asked by Twyla to help interpret a dance, I really committed," said Selya. "From now, all the way to the last steps of the last performance, the dancers will keep finding exciting new details. I don't think it ever stops. You need to allow these dancers to examine their characters.
Through the course of the nine Sinatra songs, pairs express the tenderness of a split ("Softly as I Leave You"), a sexy tango ("Strangers in the Night"), the tumbling of lost-control ("One for My Baby"), the clumsiness of young love ("Something Stupid") and full-on mature passion ("All the Way").
"You listen to Sinatra today, it's like Beethoven: lush, juicy, deep, raw," said Anastos.
Selya said all of the discipline required in the multiple hours of rehearsal should wash away when the curtain goes up Feb. 19 and 20.
"You won't be aware of the technique," he said. "But I promise you that you'll be aware of the rapture or intelligence of a multi-faceted love."
According to Anastos, that is coupled with all of the memories of the Sinatra songbook brought to the performance by an anticipating audience.
"Rarely does an audience bring so much to a performance," he said. "Memories, heartbreak, love."
To which Selya quickly added, "So come get your heart broken one more time. It will be a lovely way to spend an evening."