Film Composer Danny Elfman Turns to Ballet

Thirty years ago, musician Danny Elfman led his quirky rock band Oingo Boingo on stage before a small but loyal crowd of fans at U.C. Irvine. This week, Elfman is back in Orange County with a different sort of theatrical troupe. American Ballet Theatre will perform the West Coast premiere of a new ballet by Twyla Tharp, a co-production with the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Danny Elfman composed the music. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde found the underground bunker that serves as Elfman's studio for a conversation about making music.

Kitty Felde: Danny Elfman's work space looks like a stage set – red velvet curtains, a chandelier, paintings floating on the wall, and down center, the sound board where Elfman creates his music. In this case, an original score for choreographer Twyla Tharp and American Ballet Theatre.

Danny Elfman: The idea of writing for dance wasn't intimidating to me at all. If anything, I felt like it was just taking me back to my roots.

Felde: Elfman's roots include Gamelan music from Indonesia and Bali, and classical works by Russian composers like Prokofiev and Stravinsky.

Elfman: The orchestral music that I more or less grew up on was ballet. Ballet made sense to me. It was the "Rite of Spring" that changed my life. It was "Romeo and Juliet" that made me go "Wow!"

Felde: Elfman's musical scores have made audiences go "wow" for nearly 25 years. Some of his work bubbles with crazy effervescence, like the scores for "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice." Some of it pushes superhero action, like "Batman," "Spider-Man" and "Hellboy 2." And a lot of it is sweetly strange, like his music for "Edward Scissorhands."

Two years ago, after composing his first orchestral work, Elfman got an invitation to work with American Ballet Theatre. He attended their fall gala which ended with a piece by Twyla Tharpe and Philip Glass.

Elfman: And that blew me away. It really knocked by socks off. I was amazed. And so the next day I met with ABT. And they said, "Well first off, are you interested?" I said, "Yeah, of course. Let's do this." And they said, "All right, do you have any choreographers you're interested in working with?" And I just instantly popped out with "Twyla Tharp." And they kind of looked and said, "Mmm, not likely to happen. Who else?"

Felde: But Tharp was interested in working with Elfman. They started meeting, and those meetings had their own soundtrack.

Elfman: And in playing music, she happened to play me some Scott Joplin orchestral, like a rag opera that he had written.

Felde: Elfman returned to L.A. and wrote his own rag, and other suites chock full of percussion. The results were a bit different from his usual movie and TV fare.

Elfman: I just kept returning to New York with lots of music, and she would get very excited. And go, "Oh, I think you could start with this," and then we could get into there, and this would be pas de – and then she would send me home, and I've got like 14 pieces of music. How do I fit these together?

Felde: Elfman describes his music this way:

Elfman: I have two very competing composers living inside of me, and neither one likes the other one. One wants to be taken somewhat seriously. And the other one doesn't want to be taken seriously at all, and is a graffiti artist, and likes to go mess up what the first one does.

And the reason they get along in film is that the film dictates who's going to dominate, and the tone of the film states itself. And one or the other has to, like, either go to sleep, or go into sit in a backseat and just shut up, except for every now and then.

That's just the way it is. And Twyla picked up on this sense of competition, and she actually created her ballet about two competing male characters. Without ever having talked about this, she just was picking up this internal conflict.

Felde: The new ballet, "Rabbit and Rogue," is named for those two main characters. The 67 year old is a bit of a rogue herself, with a reputation for being tough to work with. Elfman says he knew that, but he never saw it.

Elfman: Friends would ask me, how's it going with Twyla, and I'd go, "Ah, it's going great so far, but I keep waiting for that hammer to fall, and the notes to come in where essentially I have to, like, take everything apart and put it back together backwards and rewrite everything," and that never happened, at all. It was just a... it was a dream. It really was.

Felde: "Rabbit and Rogue" plays through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Elfman's already at work on his next projects: three more films, a Broadway musical based on the life of Harry Houdini, and music for the Cirque de Soleil spectacular that will become a permanent fixture at the Kodak Theatre.

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