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This article by Barbara Figge Fox was prepared for the October 13, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Dancing with the Creative Muse

A solo choreographed by Twyla Tharp opened McCarter’s dance season earlier this month, and it is a measure of her talent that this dance, performed by New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal, was not eclipsed by the rest of the program, which consisted of masterworks by George Balanchine. As with most of what Tharp does, a casual veneer concealed the difficulty of this piece and tweaked the separation between audience and performer.

Serious and casual dance viewers alike have long been intrigued by the Tharp’s creative output and methods. In "The Creative Habit: How to Learn It, How to Trust It, How to Use It, A Practical Guide" (Simon & Schuster, 2003) Tharp explains her modus operandi. She speaks about the book at Princeton University, sponsored by the Program in Theater and Dance on Friday, October 15, at 5 p.m., at the Hagan Dance Studio, 185 Nassau Street. Anyone may attend.

Dancers lead a grueling, demanding schedule, and anyone who tries to follow Twyla Tharp’s path to creativity is in for a formidable workout. But dilettantes can dip and dip out of it for quick fixes.

"Maintain the White Hot Pitch," she suggests, and harks to the time when the boss throws a temper tantrum and everybody tries to shape up. "It’s the same for you when you’re alone and scratching for an idea. Throw a tantrum at yourself. Anger is a cheap adrenaline rush, but when you’re going nowhere and can’t get started, it will do."

"Read archaelogically," says Tharp, as if you are conducting a dig. Start where the author ended and finish where he started, then go back to his original sources and you will get to "the original idea in its ancient and most unadulterated form." Or, "read fat, listen fat, and see fat." Listen to a Mozart quintet, but also listen to the works Mozart composed immediately before and after it.

She quotes her friend Irwin Lavin, a Renaissance scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study, on learning how to begin. You don’t need to start to write by beginning at the beginning. You just need to start to write, and maybe the "right beginning" will come to you at the end.

The book turns out to be as much an autobiography as didactic tool. When she gives a quiz intended to reveal the creative bias of the reader, she tells us her own answers. She correlates each maxim to how it has worked in her own life and dance making. (So much for the supposed bad influence of Hollywood: She inhaled all the movies, good, bad and ugly, that came across the silver screen because her parents owned a drive-in theater in Rialto, California.)

"The call to a creative life is not supposed to be torture," concludes Tharp. "Yes, it’s hard work and you have to make sacrifices. Yes, it’s a noble calling; you’re volunteering in an army of sorts, alongside a phalanx of artists who have preceded you…they form a tradition that you have implicitly sworn to protect, even while you aim to frefashion it and sometimes even shatter it."

"But it’s also supposed to be fun."

– Barbara Figge Fox

Tywla Tharp, Hagan Dance Studio, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-3676. Free. Friday, October 15, 5 p.m.

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