Twyla Tharp’s 50th Anniversary Tour
The first piece Twyla Tharp choreographed was for herself and four other dancers. Tank Dive premiered at New York’s Hunter College in 1965. Tharp walked out in a pair of high-heeled shoes and vigorously hurled a yo-yo toward the floor as Petula Clark’s pop hit “Downtown” began to play. According to Tharp’s website, the title refers to her “belief that becoming a successful choreographer is equivalent to the chances of successfully diving into a thimbleful of water from a great height.”
Fifty years later, there is no question that Tharp has made a success for herself in dance. She has choreographed works for her own group as well as for various ballet companies, movies, and Broadway. Her awards include a Tony and two Emmys, and she has received 19 honorary doctorate degrees, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a 2008 Kennedy Center honor. “They don’t give Oscars for choreography,” she told Pasatiempo. There was no master plan on this journey, however. “When opportunities came, I took the jobs that appealed to me. I know dancers and vocabularies. I design where they live and bring it into focus. I ask what can I do that hasn’t already been done.”
Her current company’s one-night engagement at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Sept. 22, is part of a multicity tour to celebrate half a century of making such dances. With a group of 13 handpicked dancers, many of whom have worked with her on other projects, she created two new pieces instead of reconstructing her greatest hits. Anyone curious about earlier works can find a veritable Twyla Tharp museum online, with a chronology of “one hundred twenty-nine dances, twelve television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows, and two figure skating routines.”
Tharp began studying with leading modern dance and ballet teachers in New York while she was a student at Barnard College in the early 1960s and briefly danced with the Paul Taylor Company. She began performing in art museums, gyms, and outdoor spaces. Many dancers and choreographers of the time were rejecting the angst and lyricism of the pioneering Martha Graham generation. They often danced without music, using pedestrian movements and rejecting traditional theatrical values. “Everybody was living downtown in illegal lofts in those days,” Tharp said. “There was some amazing art happening downtown — Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly. We all felt like we were outlaws — operating outside of society.”
She started her own company in 1965 and eventually turned her back on the ranks of downtown dance artists like Merce Cunningham and the Judson Dance Theater minimalists. Unlike many of those dancers, Tharp had been heading to the Upper West
Side to take ballet classes. In 1973, she had a careermaking opportunity — to create a dance for the Joffrey Ballet. The piece was Deuce Coupe, a collaboration between her own company and the Joffrey, set to music by The Beach Boys. In addition, Deuce Coupe featured graffiti artists onstage spray-painting the sets. Tharp’s way of moving and working was a departure for Joffrey’s dancers. In Sasha Anawalt’s book about the company, Rebecca Wright, one of the dancers, describes Tharp confronting them. “Twyla just stood and said, ‘Look. Those of you in this room who do not want to work and do not like what I’m doing, I really want you to leave.’ ... Three-quarters of the room left.”
The piece became a huge hit for the Joffrey, and is often described as the first crossover dance — a combination of modern and classical techniques. New Yorker magazine dance critic Arlene Croce called it a masterpiece. “Her dancers seemed to be moved by a form of private communication which made them unlike any other dancers that one could see,” she wrote. “Most of the time in Deuce Coupe, the dancers appear to be behaving with such realism that we could believe they were making it up as they went along.” Tharp often juxtaposes classical ballet technique with a freewheeling style of movement that draws from jazz, tap, modern dance, and martial arts. “I use a strong isometric approach to movement. There is a grounding involving the spine and abs. We use force and power in all the movement — there is a lot of resistance,” she said. Croce wrote, “Tharp has a logician’s mind and a vaudevillian’s heart. The tension between the two is her hallmark.”
On tour, the logician and the vaudevillian will once again be on display. Preludes and Fugues, set to excerpts from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier,
Volumes I/II, represents the Apollonian ideal — “the world as it ought to be,” Tharp said. “Bach’s music is circular. The geometry is a kind of infinity; the circle embodies pre-Socratic philosophies, a kind of perfection. It’s like celestial movement.” Yowzie, set to music from Viper’s Drag, a jazz compilation arranged by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein, is more “street. It’s Dionysian, the way life really is.” Yowzie is built on characters and relationships, she said. “There is a dysfunctional couple and rampant partnering.” Each dance is introduced by a “fanfare,” composed by John Zorn.
While Tharp performed in many of her early works and can be seen in the archival videos as a nimble and idiosyncratic dancer, at seventy-four, she no longer demonstrates her choreography with anything like the ferocity she expects from her dancers. “I can still think in a physical way. In order to evolve movement ideas, you have to be on your feet. I still execute things. I can still show them.” She looks for dancers with strong technique but who can also act. Her Broadway experiences, including Singin’ in the Rain,
Movin’ Out (set to music by Billy Joel), and Come Fly Away (with songs sung by Sinatra), were chances to expand musical ideas into narrative ones through dance. Working in the movies, on the other hand, was sometimes a style cramper, she said. “Movies are time-consuming. There’s no opportunity for one’s own thinking. You’re hired to service a director and a script.” These directors included Miloš Forman
(Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus); Taylor Hackford (White Nights), and James L. Brooks (I’ll Do Anything).
For White Nights, Tharp teamed up again with the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom she first worked with in creating Push Comes to Shove for American Ballet Theatre in 1976. “Mischa had perfect proportions and impeccable classical technique. My own classical technique was serviceable. But I had a sense of rhythm and movement that he wanted to understand. He wanted to look away from the mirror, to understand a different kind of dance, to feel it in his body. For him, it wasn’t at all about how it looked.”
Dancing in the current tour are John Selya (who has been working with Tharp since 1988), Rika Okamoto (formerly in the Martha Graham Company), Matthew Dibble (whom she discovered at the Royal Ballet), and Ron Todorowski (who worked with Tharp on Broadway). Newer to Tharp are Daniel Baker, Amy Ruggiero, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp, Savannah Lowery, Reed Tankersley, Kaitlyn Gilliland, and Eric Otto, many of whom were discovered in ballet companies presenting Tharp works. Tankersley is the “baby,” just having recently graduated from Juilliard.
Tharp’s preparations for the tour are documented in a series she is writing for The New
York Times. On Sept. 8, she let readers in on a secret — that movements of the new Bach piece were dedicated to some of the choreographers who had influenced her. Merce Cunningham’s section is referred to by the dancers as “Slow Death.” She said that Cunningham taught her about stillness. The Jerome Robbins section
honors the competitive nature of his work (she collaborated with him on 1984’s Brahms/Handel for New York City Ballet). Martha Graham was the inspiration for “Prelude in B Flat Minor.” Tharp studied with Graham and marveled at how much weight “a small body, mine or hers, acquires with intense training and determination.” Then there is the “Fugue in A Flat Major” for George Balanchine. The dancers refer to this section as “The King and Queen,” and it reflects the tensions between the past and present in Balanchine’s work.
Today, 50 years after her performance with the yo-yo, what Tharp has to say in her choreography seems to be about what she has learned. “The adventure here is to refer as much as possible to the past, and to render it unified.”
Twyla Tharp in rehearsal; opposite page, Rika Okamoto and Matthew Dibble in Yowzie; photo Ruven Afanador