Twlya Tharp has worked on several films including Hair (1979)
Twyla Tharp is America’s crossover dance queen. High-minded but plain-talking, she melds classical ballet with modern dance, avant-garde experiment with Broadway pizzazz, technical rigour with off-the-cuff attitude, uptown glamour with downtown grit; above all, art with commerce.
Born in Indiana in 1941, Twyla Tharp was a precocious child. Extra-curricular classes included piano, violin, ballet, tap, baton-twirling, shorthand and elocution; she also worked in the family’s drive-in movie theatre. She’d end up doing 15-hour days, planned into 15-minute slots.
As a choreographer, Tharp has been equally precocious and hard-working. After her first work in 1965 (Tank Dive, a mere seven minutes long) she joined the determinedly avant-garde Judson Dance Theatre in New York, where she made a series of deliberately anti-theatrical pieces. For a while she lived on an upstate farm with her husband in a kind of artists’ commune, but the birth of her son and the breakdown of her marriage saw her headed back to the city – and phenomenal success.
Once there, she ditched the countercultural aesthetic and began to mine popular and commercial culture: she created a series of jazz-influenced pieces, and her dancers got chic outfits and Vidal Sassoon haircuts. Her breakthrough was Deuce Coupe (1973, to the Beach Boys), a risky commission by the Joffrey Ballet that became a huge hit, opening the door to Push Comes to Shove (American Ballet Theatre, 1976), an even bigger hit created for ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Tharp was in demand, prolific and media-savvy. Alongside theatre work with her own company and with ballet companies, she was a pioneer of dance on television, worked on several films – including Hair (1979), Amadeus (1984) and White Nights (1985) – choreographed for skater John Curry, and made several shows for Broadway, including The Catherine Wheel (with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne) and Singing in the Rain (1985). From 1988 to 1990, Tharp was also artistic associate at American Ballet Theatre.
The highest flying choreographer of her generation, Tharp nevertheless trod a rocky road. She disbanded her company while at ABT, then revived it, then disbanded it again; she pressed forward with plans to open a building and a school – and abandoned them. Her output has been patchy too: Demeter and Persephone (1993, Martha Graham Company) was acclaimed; Mr Worldly Wise (1995, Royal Ballet) was not; her 2006 Bob Dylan musical was a flop, but her 2004 Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out a hit. And she’s been accused of recycling too much (Come Fly Away, her 2010 Sinatra musical, echoes her 1982 Nine Sinatra Songs). Yet if Tharp’s heady heyday appears over, her influence remains, and her body of work and knowledge is phenomenal.
Tharp has written three books: an early biography, Push Comes to Shove (1992), and two books on creativity, The Creative Habit (2003) and The Collaborative Habit (2009). All three show her as ferociously smart with a can-do attitude, part ambitious dreamer, part hard-boiled pragmatist.
Watching Twyla Tharp
Tharp’s early avant-garde work seems a world away from her mainstream hits, but there is a simple link. The Judson choreographers, in keeping with Yvonne Rainer’s famous manifesto (no to spectacle, no to virtuosity, no to style …) had stripped dance of theatricality, music, expressiveness, even technique. The question, then, was what to do next, and for Tharp the answer is blunt: “All those nos would become my yeses.”
Tharp established her distinctive look in the 1970s, in works such as Eight Jelly Rolls, Deuce Coupe and Push Comes to Shove. She choreographed to musical compilations (still a frequent device), first to jazz and pop music, later also to classical. She also was increasingly interested in virtuosity, especially through her encounter with classical ballet; but rather than absorb ballet technique, she staged a kind dialogue with it, sometimes an argument. Ballet technique is often delivered with a street-smart attitude, peppered with jolts and jazzy inflections. In the Upper Room (1986) is her best-known statement of this ballet/modern crossover, an outright contest between classical hauteur and sporty swagger.
Tharp is an inspired inventor of movement – her phrases can be an almost palpably physical pleasure to watch, with unexpected twists and punches, and often oddball dynamics. You can see all manner of off-the-cuff stuff – jazz, ballroom, aerobics, various forms of boogie – all filtered through her ferocious physical intelligence. Though she has choreographed narrative works, Tharp is generally more successful with either plotless pieces (for her compositions are never casual) or with dances which emphasis character or emotion rather than story.
Rose Marie Wright and Sarah Rudner were the best-known of Tharp’s original company. William Kosmas, Tharp’s manager in 1971, was the force behind the company’s decisive turn away from the avant-garde to a more commercial approach (the Sassoon haircuts were down to him). Tharp’s most famous dancing partner is Mikhail Baryshnikov; it was he, too, who invited her to join ABT as associate artist in 1988. Santo Loquasto has been a frequent costume designer for Tharp.
Twyla was named after Twila Thornburg, the reigning “Pig Princess” in a local fair; her mother substituted the “y” because she thought it would look better on posters if Twyla got famous.
In her own words
“It could be Beethoven at the damn keyboard. It could be Rembrandt with the damn paints. It could be Hemingway with the goddamned typewriter. Why sit there every morning? Why the frustration? Why come back to it day in and day out? It’s because that’s where you do your work.” – Tharp’s typically pragmatic understanding of artistic creativity. Interview with Erika Kinetz, New York Times 2003
“Sometimes I will parallel the music with the choreography … But music can be an energy-driving source, like gasoline in a car. We don’t need to illustrate music, music illustrates itself. I feel the same about narrative in dance. The content and thematic materials of dance is of itself, like boxing. You play tennis and baseball. But boxing is not a sport you play: you stand up and do it.” – Tharp on the relation of dance to music and narrative. Interview with Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times 2000
In other words
“Ms Tharp is in the curious position of being consistently identified as both a modern dance revolutionary and one of ballet’s few great living choreographers – certainly its only female one.” – Roslyn Sulcas, New York Times 2008
“If Twyla Tharp were an automobile, she’d be a 1960s Jaguar: fast, stylish, high profile … and unreliable.” – Jennifer Homans, New York Times 2006
“Twyla Tharp’s choreography resembles the way she talks: fast, dense, knowing, designed to impress. At best, the results can be sassy and energising; at worst, it becomes verbose, fixated on its own technical cleverness.” – Nadine Meisner, Independent 2003
“Despite her attempts to integrate herself into the world of classical ballet, Miss Tharp remains an outsider looking in – a modern dancer who does not take the classical idiom for granted, and who cannot resist examining its parts under a microscope.” – Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times 1989
“Could only have been made in America.”
You’re right. But why?
“Who is Twyla Pharp?”
… as British choreographer Richard Alston did, in the misspelled title of a piece he created in 1971.
Like Tharp, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs are all alumni of the Judson Dance Theatre; their divergent careers make for interesting comparisons. Other art-house choreographers who have crossed into Broadway territory include Jerome Robbins (from ballet) and Bill T Jones (from modern dance).
Now watch this
The One Hundreds (performed in 2009) – a recreation of Tharp’s minimal 1970 experiment.
Mikhail Baryshnikov in Push Comes To Shove (1976)
Aquarius from Milos Forman’s film Hair (1979)
Skater John Curry in After All, 1980
Mikhail Baryshnikov in Tharp’s 1984 TV Sinatra Suite
The Golden Section, from The Catherine Wheel, performed by Miami City Ballet
In the Upper Room, performed by Miami City Ballet
Movin’ Out (2003) at the Tony awards
Where to see Twyla Tharp next
See the Twyla Tharp website for performance dates.