Twyla Tharp, photo by Greg Gorman
I discovered dance while living just outside New York City during the second half of the ’80s. Downtown venues like Dance Theater Workshop, P.S. 122 and the Kitchen were where the last days of the dance boom were happening, but it was the annual Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that brought in modern dance’s heavy hitters, domestic and foreign. That’s where I and a few hundred others were startled by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas danst Rosas (which I’ll be seeing for the first time in 35 years next week at the American Dance Festival) and fellow Europeans Pina Bausch and Maguy Marin.
A year later, Twyla Tharp’s company had its BAM season, and with pieces like In the Upper Room, Nine Sinatra Songs and The Catherine Wheel I had found my favorite choreographer. Tharp’s combination of fierce athletic movement and complicated yet easy-to-watch pattern-making had me hooked. Fast forward a few decades, and Tharp is in Dallas being interviewed by TITAS’ Charles Santos at the Nasher Sculpture Center for what turns out to be Hepburn-Tracy-like quip fest. Then this spring, I interviewed her when she choreographed a piece for the TITAS Command Performance fundraiser.
Here are the articles, originally written for The Dallas Morning News:
Twyla Tharp wows ’em at Nasher Salon lecture series (published May 2009)
Legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp danced with TITAS executive director Charles Santos for 45 minutes Thursday night without ever leaving her chair. Where did she grow up? “I haven’t.” How did she first study dance? “I made it up.”
The friendly verbal jousting was the latest installment in the Nasher Salon Lecture Series at Nasher Sculpture Center. As the exchanges went on, Santos coaxed more expansive answers from the playfully elusive Tharp, who’s a spry 67.
She talked about her upbringing in Indiana and Southern California, where she spent a lot of time at her parents’ drive-in “learning what goes on in dark cars.” She remembered wearing pointe shoes to pull her red wagon full of comic books down the street.
When Santos read a long list of disciplines that Tharp studied as a child – everything from ballet and tap to piano and violin to German and baton twirling – she retorted, “My mother wanted me to be capable.”
Tharp’s capabilities have landed her in the pantheon of not only modern-dance choreographers but also alongside such historical ballet greats as George Balanchine and Martha Graham.
After studying art history at Barnard College, she briefly joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company before starting her own troupe in the mid-1960s. In 1973, Deuce Coupe, set to the music of the Beach Boys, shook up the traditional dance world. It has been called the first “crossover ballet.”
Tharp related that ability to balance artistry and accessibility with her trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a kid when it was free to get in. “There is a kind of standard that needs to be respected without being elitist,” she said. “Great art isn’t elitist.”
Though she studied dance under Graham, Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Erick Hawkins, Tharp was reluctant to cite influences. She mentioned seeing the late MGM musicals of Fred Astaire, and Santos brought up her love of the Italian neo-realist film, The Bicycle Thief, from which she learned economy of storytelling.
“I wasn’t interested in being mentored,” she said. “I always wanted to find my own way.”
Twyla Tharp talks about new duet Armenia (published April 2011)
Twyla Tharp set her first memorable duet to a trio of Frank Sinatra songs. That was 1976, the occasion an American Ballet Theatre gala where she shared the stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov for Once More Frank.
Three decades later, one of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers has been inspired for her latest pas de deux by a lesser known musical interpreter than Sinatra, 19th century Armenian priest and composer Komitas Vardapet, a collector of his country’s folk tunes.
The occasion is Saturday’s TITAS Command Performance gala at the Winspear Opera House, the arts presenting organization’s biggest annual fundraiser, featuring a program of duets and solos by elite ballerinas and danseurs primarily from the ballet world.
This year’s 17th edition includes representatives from American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the modern companies of Alvin Ailey and David Parsons.
Charles Hodges, currently appearing in Tharp’s duets-driven theater piece Sinatra Dance With Me in Las Vegas, will dance the world premiere of her Armenia with Chalnessa Eames of Pacific Northwest Ballet.
“It’s for two virtuoso dancers,” Tharp says in a phone interview from her New York base. “The costumes are simple – tights and leotards – and she’s on point.”
Turning 70 in July, Tharp has spent her half-century-long career moving freely among ballet, modern dance and musical theater idioms – between high art and pop – creating complicated work that’s easy to watch. She’s most widely recognized for Movin’ Out, the hit Broadway musical set to Billy Joel songs, but her greatest genius has been expressed in precisely constructed pieces for the concert-dance stage.
“I do think that structure has meaning,” she says when asked about the way she builds a dance around the reiteration and variation of recognizable movement patterns. “It resonates with the audience because they’ve seen it before. They’ve already made an investment in the material. The bottom line is, if you bring it back, you’re being positive, nothing is wasted and there’s actually hope that what you’re doing doesn’t just disappear.”
Her next project is a commission from Atlanta Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet for a coming-of-age narrative inspired by Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald and the music of Schubert.
Scheduled to premiere in Atlanta in February and in Winnipeg next fall, it will take in a wide range of performers, “from 5-year-olds to senior dancers on the cusp of retiring,” says Tharp, who shows no signs of quitting or slowing down herself. “I’m working on this, and I’m working on that.”