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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
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
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
Place, 609-258-2787. Website: www.twylatharp.org $35 & $38.
February 26, 8 p.m.
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