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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Twyla! A Cultural & Community Anchor

I really don’t want to talk too much about the future

because, quite frankly, I’m so pleased with the present," says

Twyla Tharp, bright and early one morning last week from her dance

company’s New York office.

Tharp, one of the most inventive, influential, and prodigious


turns 60 this year, and she’s still a dynamo on the American scene.

The bright present she’s so pleased with comprises the inaugural


of her new, six-member company (her first in 12 years) and the


spring opening of the first bricks-and-mortar company studio home

she has ever known.

Twyla Tharp Dance, which made its debut last summer at the American

Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, comes to McCarter Theater

on Monday, February 26, following a five-day season at New York’s

Joyce Theater, preceded by two performances at the New Jersey


Arts Center in Newark. The program features two works Tharp premiered

at ADF, "Surfer at the River Styx" to a score by experimental

jazz composer Donald Knaack, and "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K.


Writing in the New York Times, critic Anna Kisselgoff described these

latest dances as acts of "ferocious virtuosity… nonstop, fierce

bravura, delivered with mind-boggling stamina."

Last week, Tharp’s featured interview in the New York Times with


Lichtenstein, long-time director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

(February 11, 2001), and a cover story in the March issue of Dance

Magazine, focused attention on the company’s April move into the


Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, around the corner from the


Academy of Music (BAM). The home where Tharp plans to rehearse, offer

performances, dance classes, and lectures, is the project of BAM’s

Local Development Corporation. The Mark Morris Dance Group is building

a studio and school in the nascent 14-block cultural district.

"I see dance as glue for a community," she told Lichtenstein.

"Dance should not just divide people into audience and performers.

Everyone should be a participant, whether going to classes or


special events or rehearsals."

On the morning of this interview, however, these bricks and mortar

(plus rent and utilities) issues fall into the "future" realm

that Tharp is approaching somewhat cautiously. But that’s the only

note of caution. Tharp speaks the way she dances, idiosyncratically,

and with barely a pause for breath.

"I could talk for hours about the ideal component, about the


of this venture, but the reality is what we’re concerned with, and

that’s not something I can talk about because it has yet to be


she begins. "I’ve been looking for a studio space since I began

in 1965 — not like a 30 year search, but on and off we’ve


been looking for a home base. With Brooklyn, we’re going to have to

wait and see how this works. It’s a wee bit of a new world over there.

And how we can move into the community and how we can make sense of

it — this is something that’s going to have to evolve."

Asked to elaborate on her ideas about "dance as glue," she

returns to a memory of her own eccentric childhood, so vividly


in her no-holds-barred autobiography, "Push Comes to Shove."

Now she reveals that "glue" can, in fact, mean many things

— including a pool hall.

"When I was a kid growing up in Portland, Indiana, my family was

very religious," she begins. "There was, however, a pool hall

in town. And my idea of community was to get to go to this pool hall

and hang out — not that I knew the word `hang out’ — and learn

about shooting pool. I didn’t have the opportunity to do it that


But I sensed community because everybody came to the pool hall. There

was nothing the matter with Quaker Sunday meeting or Quaker Wednesday

meeting, that was great, too. But it wasn’t physical in the same


"The Quakers are an extremely responsible group and some services

are silent. There is no address, no pastor speaking. If anybody’s

got something to say there’ll be something, and otherwise there’s

an hour of silence. And I understood that very well. But I also loved

having a place to go that was relatively clean and where people were

physical, shooting pool. And I see this like pool hall."

Tharp says she’s also thinking of the new space as a theater. Here

she plans to revive recent repertory and to bring back "very old

pieces" — such as "Tank Dive," her first work,


at Hunter College in 1965. "The title," she writes,


to my sense that my chances of succeeding as a choreographer like

Graham, Balanchine, or Cunningham were the same as someone diving

off a 40-foot platform into a teacup of water or, better yet, from

a very high platform, about nine hundred thousand feet up, into a

thimbleful of water." The next morning she was stunned to discover

her "history creating" seven-minute concert had not been


Tharp was born in 1941, the eldest of five children

(the second died in infancy), to parents who, while college educated,

counted themselves as fifth generation farmers. Her mother, a


chose Twyla’s name for "how it would look on a marquee."


lessons, piano, violin, baton-twirling, and tap dance were all part

of her artistic fare. Tharp was eight when her parents moved her and

her "totally unmanageable" younger twin brothers Stanley and

Stanford (both known as "Stan"), and younger sister Twanette

(now an architect) to Rialto, California, where the family built and

managed a drive-in movie theater. Tharp dates her incessant desire

to "keep moving" from this world-changing moment.

Tharp graduated from Barnard College and immediately joined the Paul

Taylor company before lighting out on her own in 1965. No other art

form suited her, she insists today: "In an irrational, intangible,

physical way dance made sense, movement made sense, physicality made

sense." Her early works, some presented at the Judson Church,

were unapologetically brainy and experimental. Among these, "The

Fugue" (1970), is a complex, rhythmic trio, performed without

music, that includes everyday movement loaded with hidden signals,

from a street-wise shoulder shrug to elbow jab and foot scuff.

"Deuce Coupe," her 1973 hit commissioned by the Joffrey


helped Tharp develop her signature hybrid style that brings together

ballet’s 350-year-old classical vocabulary with the elasticity of

modern dance. Her equally rigorous and progressively more ingratiating

dances inspired by jazz scores include "Bix Pieces" (1972),

"Sue’s Leg" (1975), and "Baker’s Dozen" (1979). In

the 1980s she moved into more expansively scaled terrain with "The

Catherine Wheel" (1981) and "In The Upper Room" (1986).

As associate artistic director of American Ballet Theater from 1988

to ’90, she created more than a dozen dances for that company. After

1988, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago became the custodian for much of

her company repertory.

Tharp’s Hollywood credits include the 1978 film version of


directed by Milos Forman, together with "Ragtime" in 1980,

and "Amadeus" in 1984, for which she choreographed and staged

the opera sequences. She also choreographed Taylor Hackford’s


Nights" in 1985 for Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And

her 1984 television special, "Baryshnikov By Tharp," won two

Emmy awards.

Throughout her career, Tharp has dazzled audiences by selecting


with superb physical skills and powerful, distinctive stage presences,

and creating movement that highlights and extends their capabilities.

Today, looming large on her "pleasing present" mental


is her new company of two women and four men who will perform at



They are Benjamin Bowman, a former soloist with New York City Ballet;

Alexander Brady of the Miami City Ballet; Elizabeth Parkinson,


with the Joffrey Ballet; Ashley Tuttle, a principal with American

Ballet Theater; and Keith Roberts and John Selya, both formerly with


"These dancers are the optimum, they’re the dancers I’ve been

working 25 years to develop," she says emphatically, adding that

Tuttle, Selya, and Roberts have all danced with her for the last 10

years. "I love them all. I think they’re fantastic. This group

is, in my opinion, amazing — but then that’s me, their mother


"All of them are solidly grounded in the classical technique which

I think is a very good thing to be. And these are dancers who are

genuinely crossover dancers."

Tharp says her "Surfer at the River Styx" is inspired by


"The Bacchae," portraying the prideful attitudes toward the

world and the universe, and the conclusion that "the meek will

inherit the earth."

"It’s very theatrical and in some ways very ritualistic,"

she says. "It exists in a dark place, that’s for sure. And it

does involve a kind of accomplishing of a light place. Seventh-eighths

of it fits in this horrible world, and then that other little fraction

gets to float high. And how did they get there and do we believe


"It’s an extremely difficult piece just in terms of endurance

and stamina, it’s a tour de force. And the dancers are all

virtuosi. Their power and fortitude is something that I think


is an inspiration. And to see them put themselves through this, put

them through this ordeal, which it truly is, and accomplish it, it’s

very moving."

The enduring but endangered model of the choreographer-led company

was born with modern dance, attempted first by Isadora Duncan, Ruth

St. Denis, and Martha Graham at the turn of the 20th century,. The

collapse of the Graham company this year — the outcome of fierce

battles between her actual and artistic legatees — has acted as

a shock to the system. We ask Tharp if it has put a pall on her rosy

outlook for a company and a building.

"Everybody knows that I have immense regard for the Graham


and the Graham tradition. I love it for what she made, and I love

it for the audacity that she had at the time. For a woman to do what

she did is just amazing. And I’ll always be grateful for that,"

she says. Beyond that artistic debt, her connection to Graham’s


stops. Although she notes that "finding sympathetic and great

administrators is no easier than finding sympathetic and great


The model, which Tharp is returning to now, has proved both rewarding

and problematic. She was the first choreographer to put her company

on full 52-week contracts. But by the late 1980s the business and

expense of directing the company was making it almost impossible to

find time to make new dances. "I felt I was working to support

the machine rather than its being there to support me," she says.

Thus she terminated her company in 1988.

Through an unusual arrangement, she then proceeded to New York’s


Ballet Theater, a company with which she had established close ties

through her long association with then-artistic director Mikhail


for whom she created "Push Comes to Shove" in 1976. As


artistic director at ABT from 1988 to 1990, she continued working

with some of her former company members as well as teaching her work

to ABT’s world-class dancers.

From 1990 to 2000, Tharp was on her own again. She has

made commissioned works for a panoply of world-class companies that

include London’s Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and, most


"The Beethoven Seventh" for New York City Ballet. As a


she and her son, Jesse Huot, now in his early 30s, have been the


office crew. "We do all the letters, all the phone calls, all

the everythings," she explains.

In 1997, she launched "Tharp!," a dance tour (that also


at McCarter Theater) designed to be self-sustaining, earning its way

at the box office rather than depending on the grants and donations

that have supported dance in recent decades. She now reports that,

in an era of heavy subsidies for dance, "Tharp!" did indeed

pay its own way for the two-year international tour.

"In a way I’m fortunate that I’m in a transition niche, I’m in

a sort of gap here, on a kind of bridge," she muses. "I didn’t

have to think about the ’70s dance boom because I was there and it

happened. And now that it has happened, I could look back on it and

say, `This was this and this happened this way,’ but it’s not really

relevant to what the world is now. I am a connection to how dance

worked in the ’60s, and here we are in 2001 — and it’s a totally

different ball game now.

"I mean when we started out in the mid-’60s there was no subsidy.

The Endowment didn’t exist, there were no state councils. It was


and family, essentially, and your own audacity.

"But at that time I just moved forward doing what I wanted to

do, which was to dance, and to assemble people around me who wanted

to do the same thing, who would form a cadre, and we would be able

to put forth what we believed in and the public could yea or nay it.

All that we had to do was just focus on the solitary importance of

what we believed. And whether or not that’s a possibility these days?

Actually I think it still is. But I think it takes a fierce


While her career was advanced by the dance boom, Tharp has not


how to operate on a shoestring.

"People who are starting out now know the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s

as funding periods, and they’re going, `Wait a minute, where are our

funds to work? We gotta get our application together, we gotta our

development director together.’ And I say. `You know what, you gotta

get your repertory together!’"

After 35 years in the business, conserving repertory is also on


mind. The new company’s second program, which will be premiered in

Los Angeles in June, will include several of her older duets as well

as "Hammerklavier," to music of Beethoven, commissioned by

the American Dance Festival in 1999.

"This is fairly immediate repertory, not greatly distant


she says. "But this will be the first stab at repertory for this

group and we’ll see how we feel about it."

How she and her dancers feel about reviving past work in favor of

the new remains to be seen.

"Here’s the truth: repertory is valuable in that it has material

that has proven itself. It’s difficult in that it is, frankly,


You know, it’s somebody else’s garments and you have to make yourself

fit into them. It doesn’t have the same reward quotient as totally

discovering a future in a role, which is what it is to premiere a

new work. And I think we’re going to have to look at this in terms

of how we want to invest our time.

"On the other hand, I do genuinely believe that it is important

for me, before too much longer, to do a retrospective," she


"That it really is important to get up `Re-Moves,’ which is from

’66, and show how that got into `Eight Jelly Rolls,’ which is from

’69, and `The Fugue’ which is in there, too. How does that all make

sense in terms of `As Time Goes By’? And why was `Deuce Coupe’ done?

"You see my repertory is different than some people’s. I have

always seen each piece as a launching pad for the next piece, and

how great a reach can I make to the next piece. It has not been about

staying on one plateau. I think that this kind of evolution, if you

will, would be interesting and important to see."

Although Tharp’s ambitious three-year plan is to double the size of

her present company and even build a larger, repertory ensemble, her

immediate interest is in the current ensemble of six. She’s confident

that audiences will be dazzled by their brilliance.

"These dancers are — I suppose the word that gets used and

sometimes is used easily and is a word I don’t often use — but

it’s a word called `inspiration.’ And they do compel me to have new

thoughts and new ideas about dancing and the direction of dancing.

And as long as that’s the case, I’ll always be a little more

interested in moving forward than backward."

— Nicole Plett

Twyla Tharp Dance, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Website: $35 & $38.


February 26, 8 p.m.

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