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Twyla Tharp (1941 - )

By Marcia B. Siegel

From the outset of her career Twyla Tharp has been recognized as an original. For five decades, Tharp's choreography has opened new pathways for concert dance and ballet. She has moved unabashedly across genres, from the nonprofit to the commercial stage, from the theater to film and television. She has invented and re-invented the circumstances within which to enlist dancers and create new work. And she has consistently extended the dancers' vocabulary, erasing distinctions between modern dance, classical ballet, and popular dance forms. Contemporary dance, with its sensuous physicality and technical dazzle, was anticipated decades ago by Tharp.

 

Born in Indiana and raised in southern California, Tharp, attended by an ambitious mother, was plied with lessons---piano, violin, ballet, baton twirling---and was instructing her siblings in dance before she got to high school. She arrived in New York to attend Barnard College at the beginning of the 1960s. She majored in art history but organized her curriculum so she could take classes at the leading modern dance studios. After graduating in 1963, she performed briefly with Paul Taylor's company, then set out on her own.

Tharp's first choreographic efforts were influenced by the downtown avant-garde. Through her then-husband, the painter Robert Huot, and his artist and filmmaker friends, she absorbed ideas about revolutionary art and politics. Huot, a fan of jazz and sports, added to the reservoir of popular culture Tharp had begun accumulating as a teenager, when she worked at her parents' drive-in movie theater. As designer and unofficial collaborator, Huot also performed in some of Tharp's first dances.

Tank Dive (1965) was performed in a small theater space at Hunter College, where Robert Huot was on the faculty. The ten-minute debut proclaimed Tharp's determination to redraw the rules of dance and choreography. She did some warm-up stretches wearing a pair of wooden flippers, balanced on her toes in an X position, executed a somersault and a slide, and held a long balance during a recording of Petula Clark's "Downtown." Huot and a friend, Christopher Constance, butted shoulders in a mock-battle. Two women waved flags.

For the next few years, Tharp explored the alternative possibilities that were circulating through the downtown arts and performance world. She never associated directly with the experimenters at Judson Dance Theater, but she did give one performance at their headquarters, New York's Judson Memorial Church. Her works at this time took up some of the same conceptual challenges and Dadaistic escapades that were being pursued by the Judson dancers. She made a walking dance for the camera with no live audience (Stride, 1965), a dance with hand-held floodlights (Jam, 1967), and a dance that took place around and inside a large wooden box that partially obscured the dancers' action from view (Re-Moves, 1966).

Even at her most unconventional, she devised rigorous compositional schemes, with movement that was precisely timed and spaced, alongside dance steps deconstructed to look ordinary, and incongruous props and costumes. Tank Dive began her longtime association with Jennifer Tipton, who was starting her own auspicious career as a lighting designer. In 1967, through Robert Huot's European art gallery connections, Tharp undertook her first international tour, with dancers Sara Rudner and Margaret Jenkins.

 

Over the next few years, Tharp built up a company of enthusiastic young women, sometimes supplementing it with students as she toured American colleges. With her ingenious and dynamic movement, her sense of discovery, and the engaging personalities of the group, Tharp won an enraptured following wherever she went. Tharp Dance was among the four downtown companies invited to perform on a big modern dance season at the Billy Rose Theater in 1969. This first Broadway appearance was quickly followed by Tharp's debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House. Here, she put the audience on the stage with the dancers. The program consisted of Generation and Group Activities, two of her most demanding formalist pieces.

By this time Tharp was developing a highly complex movement vocabulary in a fast, articulate, but relaxed style, a supercharged modern dance that looked casual but was intricately structured and dispensed with narrative, characters, or musical accompaniment. Each dance delved into a set of compositional possibilities: two groups doing the same choreography in overlapping spaces, for instance, or several people doing a phrase with their own timings. The dancers all had extensive dance training, which Tharp proceeded to push beyond prevailing limits of speed, rhythm, and intricacy. The movement was often developed in the studio by the dancers, according to Tharp's instructions and counts, so that after Tharp had edited and refined the material it retained the personal stamp of each individual dancer.

In 1969 Tharp created two site-specific works that deployed not only this movement vocabulary but a range of improvisational gambits to incorporate everyday activity into the dance and draw attention to the environment. Medley, on a large lawn at Connecticut College, and Dancing in the Streets of London and Paris, Continued in Stockholm and Sometimes Madrid, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, were repeated in New York's Central Park and Metropolitan Museum of Art respectively.

Tharp's formalism reached a climax of difficulty in 1970. The One Hundreds had two dancers doing 100 eleven-second phrases without stopping, then five dancers each doing twenty of the phrases simultaneously, then a hundred volunteers together, each doing one phrase they had learned. The Fugue was a set of twenty variations on a phrase, performed originally by Tharp, Rudner, and Rose Marie Wright. After this austere immersion in phrase-making, Tharp broke through to popular recognition with the first of her jazz pieces, Eight Jelly Rolls ( 1971). This dance too was a compositional tour de force, but she downplayed its braininess with silent-movie comedy, stylish hairdos, and the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton. A year after its premiere she substituted backless tuxedos for the simple original costumes.

 

A sensation with the audience and the critics, Eight Jelly Rolls was followed by several other dances set to American jazz music. The Bix Pieces (Bix Beiderbecke and Haydn, 1971), The Raggedy Dances (ragtime, 1972), and Sue's Leg (Fats Waller, 1975) established Tharp's identity as a crossover choreographer who fused modern dance and ballet, classical and popular music, exactitude and spontaneity, in the most unaffected way. Most of these works were filmed for television, extending Tharp's long relationship with the camera. Tharp had seized on the first, primitive videotaping equipment to make archival recordings of her rehearsals and performances. She was using these recordings as an adjunct to both creative work and repertory maintenance as early as 1970.

When Robert Joffrey asked Tharp to create a work for his ballet company, she decided her own company---now numbering two men and five women--should be included. Deuce Coupe premiered in Chicago on February 8, 1973 and at New York City Center on March 1. To recorded music by the Beach Boys, and with a group of graffiti artists painting a mural on a rolling backdrop during the dance, Deuce Coupe was an immediate hit. Tharp's exuberant setting of the Beach Boys songs was the first work ever choreographed for a ballet and a modern dance company together. Robert Joffrey immediately asked for another piece, for his dancers alone. As Time Goes By, to the "Farewell Symphony" of Haydn, premiered the following fall.

The Joffrey Ballet commissions netted Tharp three dancers, Richard Colton, William Whitener, and Christine Uchida, who left their secure Joffrey jobs to share a more adventurous life with her. She had always welcomed dancers with ballet training, beginning in the 1960s with Rose Marie Wright. In lieu of company class, she and the dancers took ballet classes daily. The Tharp company developed into a successful touring ensemble fusing ballet and modern dance in Tharp's imaginative choreography. Outstanding works of the ensuing decade included Ocean's Motion (1975) to Chuck Berry, Baker's Dozen (1979) to Willie "The Lion" Smith, Short Stories (1980) to songs by Supertramp and Bruce Springsteen, and the evening-length The Catherine Wheel (1981) with a commissioned score by David Byrne. Santo Loquasto's elegant costumes for Sue's Leg were the first of his many designs for Tharp productions.

During this period Tharp had her first encounter with American Ballet Theater. Push Comes to Shove (1976) was intended as a contemporary challenge for the recently arrived Russian superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, but it energized the entire company. Tharp exploited Baryshnikov's tremendous classical gifts while portraying him as a slouchy, possibly threatening newcomer in an imaginary troupe of bored traditional dancers. After the ballet's great success, ABT asked Tharp for a gala pièce d'occasion. She created the first of several works to songs of Frank Sinatra, a jazzy showpiece for herself and Baryshnikov dancing together like twins in identical shorts, tops, and jazz shoes. Once More Frank turned out to be one of the few outright failures of her career, possibly because Baryshnikov didn't deliver virtuosic feats or act the romantic cavalier.

Tharp would not give up on Sinatra, though. Nine Sinatra Songs (1982) engaged the 14 dancers of her company in a series of duets based on ballroom dance styles, with balletic partner work. Two years later she used some of the same songs for Sinatra Suite, featuring Baryshnikov and an ABT partner (Elaine Kudo on the DVD). While the Nine Songs had no story, the Suite told of a brief encounter at a party. Push and the Sinatra Suite became part of a commercial video/DVD, "Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra," first issued in 1984. Much later, Tharp returned to the Crooner for a musical show, eventually titled Come Fly Away (2009), about the relationships of four couples. Although it wasn't successful on Broadway, a touring company was still making its way around the country in 2012.

 

Tharp's ballet successes and her feisty, charismatic personality brought her into the realm of popular culture and attracted freelance offers with the financial resources to fuel her experiments. Making Television Dance (1977), for WNET/Channel 13's Experimental Television Lab, explored ways of using the TV medium for dance. It included footage of herself and Baryshnikov rehearsing Once More Frank, short studies in dynamics for four Tharp dancers (Shelley Washington, Jennifer Way, Tom Rawe and Christine Uchida),  and a performance of a work in progress, Country Dances, taped with a live audience. Interviews with the dancers and black-and-white footage of the production process wove between the dance segments.

Tharp became involved with filmmaker Milos Forman as choreographer of the movie Hair (1977), bringing in her company as dancing hippies for his adaptation of the Broadway show. She later worked on Amadeus and Ragtime with Forman. She choreographed Gregory Hines and Baryshnikov's challenge dance in White Nights (1985). For Gene Kelly's 1980 TV special, Dance is a Man's Sport Too, Tharp made a duet for New York City Ballet star Peter Martins and football star Lynn Swann. Although she'd had no sports experience, she created a suave solo for ice dancer John Curry, After All (1976). A Broadway remake of Kelly's classic movie Singin' in the Rain, directed and choreographed  by Tharp, came and went in 1985.

Tharp regarded commercial work as a challenge, to prove that dance deserved to be a popular art, not limited to the concert stage. Her personal fame brought audiences to her own company, but her work on these outside projects restricted the time she could spend choreographing for Tharp Dance. She struggled for years to resolve this conflict. She had always given her dancers considerable responsibility for teaching and rehearsing her repertory, and she gave up touring with the company. She essentially stopped dancing after the semi-autobiographical When We Were Very Young (1980), returning to the stage in only two more dances (Fait Accompli, 1983, and Men's Piece, 1991), and co-starring in Cutting Up, a lucrative touring show she put together with Baryshnikov in 1992-93. During the early 1980s, when the company was having its most spectacular touring success, Tharp divided her dancers into a red team and a blue team. The idea was to send one group on the road while the other stayed in New York making new work, but the experiment was short-lived.

Tharp was also in demand as a ballet choreographer in the U.S. and Europe. In 1984 she made her debut with the New York City Ballet in another unusual collaboration. Her longtime friend, Jerome Robbins, had become co-artistic director of NYCB with Peter Martins after the death of George Balanchine in 1983. It was Robbins's idea to make a ballet with Tharp. Dividing the cast of 28 dancers into a blue and a green team, the choreographers soon mixed the groups, feeding off each other's ideas. Brahms/Handel premiered on June 7, 1984. It represented an exhilarating stretch for its principals (Merrill Ashley, Maria Calegari, Ib Andersen, and Bart Cook) and the entire company. The same season Tharp choreographed a big and challenging work for ABT, Bach Partita, starring six principal dancers and a corps of 30.

Tharp had returned to choreograph for American Ballet Theater in the 1980s when Baryshnikov had taken over as artistic director. She contributed several works to the repertory, and in 1988 was invited to become an artistic associate. Her own company was fraying at that point, and she took the ABT invitation as an opportunity to disband it. She brought seven of her dancers into the ballet company, where they danced in her works and other items of the ABT repertory. Tharp hoped to continue her creative work under the ABT umbrella, without the financial and administrative burdens of running her own organization. This scheme too was short-lived, as her advocate at ABT, Baryshnikov, resigned in 1990 to pursue his own projects. Tharp left soon afterward.

 

Even before the ABT sojourn, Tharp had been reducing her commitment to her own company. The last big work she made for the group, In the Upper Room (1986), was taken into the ABT repertory, where it has remained a stunning attraction. After Tharp left ABT, she began operating on a per-project basis, hiring dancers for the duration of a specific commission or residency. Some individuals would return from one project to the next, giving a certain consistency to the work even though they weren't operating as a true full-time company. With these temporary groups she produced Sweet Fields (1996), two Beethoven works (Diabelli, 1998 and Hammerklavier, 1999), and Mozart Clarinet Quintet K581 and Surfer at the River Styx (2000), plus several other touring items. Surfer, with its high-powered movement and dynamic dancers, crystallized a late-Tharp style of explosive physicality. The cast of that work went on to originate Tharp's all-dance Broadway show Movin' Out, based on the music of Billy Joel. She won a 2002 Tony Award as choreographer, and the show gained ten Tony nominations that year. Movin' Out had a three-year run on Broadway and was seen in touring editions until 2008. After Movin' Out Tharp put together another group, which did a year of her repertory on the road and then became Movin' Out's first touring company.

Tharp kept as active as ever, but after she had disbanded Tharp Dance, her choreography could no longer be seen as one body of work. In 1990, she embarked on what was to be a ten-year association with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to perform her repertory. It was another first: modern dance companies seldom incorporated the work of outside choreographers. Tharp sent her trusted former dancers Shelley Washington, Rose Marie Wright, and Jennifer Way to supervise the restagings, visiting Hubbard Street herself to oversee the productions. Hubbard Street eventually staged six of Tharp's dances, plus a new work, I Remember Clifford, which she created for them in 1995.

The Tharp Dance organization was now managed by her son, Jesse Huot. The Hubbard Street experiment led to a system for licensing her dances. A company could acquire dances for specified periods of time, learning them from videotape and Tharp's designated teachers. Tharp gained control of her creative output this way, but did not need to maintain her own company. Meanwhile, she accepted commissions to create new dances and ballets, continuing to gather new groups of dancers for her own projects. In this way, Tharp's new and old repertory was being done extensively in the United States and abroad, but audiences couldn't access more than one or two pieces without traveling some distance to see them. Critics no longer were able to assess the direction of her choreographing career.

Besides her freelance choreographing, Tharp published an autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, in 1992, and two books of popular advice and personal stories, The Creative Habit - Learn It and Use It for Life (2003)and The Collaborative Habit - Life Lessons for Working Together (2009).

Tharp has won every major award offered to dancers, including a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (1974-75), a MacArthur "genius" award (1992), the Kennedy Center Honors (2008), the National Medal of Arts (2004), the Dance Magazine Award (1981), the Samuel Scripps Award from the American Dance Festival (1990), and innumerable grants, fellowships, and honorary degrees.

Twyla Tharp is a phenomenon in American dance history, a choreographer who has crossed stylistic borders, extended the notion of dancing, and thrilled audiences, while continually seeking new challenges for herself. She made her first Greek drama, Demeter and Persephone (with Klezmer music) for the Martha Graham company in 1993. And in 2012, under a co-commission from the Atlanta and Royal Winnipeg Ballets, she was preparing The Princess and the Goblin, a Victorian story ballet that included an ensemble of children.


Marcia  B. Siegel is the author of The Shapes of Change -  Images of American Dance, Days on Earth - The Dance of Doris Humphrey, Howling Near Heaven - Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance, and four collections of reviews and essays. She is an internationally known teacher, lecturer and dance critic.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Mazo, Joseph. "Twyla Tharp -- Advance from the 1960s", in Prime Movers - The Makers of Modern Dance in America. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1977. pp.271-98.

McDonagh, Don. "Twyla Tharp/Controlled Living Space," in The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance. New York: Outerbridge & Dientsfrey, 1970. pp.105-118.

Siegel, Marcia B. Howling Near Heaven - Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.

---------------------. The Shapes of Change - Images of American Dance. [1979] Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. pp. 262-279, 351-363.

Tharp Twyla. PushComes to Shove. New York, Bantam Books, 1992.

---------------- with Jesse Kornbluth. The Collaborative Habit - Life Lessons for Working Together. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

---------------- with Mark Reiter. The Creative Habit - Learn It and Use It for Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Witchel, Alex. "To Dance Beneath the Diamond Skies." New York Times Magazine, 22 October 2006.

Online Resources

http://www.twylatharp.org/archive/default.shtml

Archives

Archives are housed at the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute, The Ohio State University. http://library.osu.edu/find/collections/theatre-research-institute/