Twyla Tharp wants to talk about George Washington: “There are three qualities of character that I read in George Washington’s farewell speech as he stepped down from the presidency: independence, integrity, and industry.”
Tharp brought up the first president in a recent telephone interview, taking a break from rehearsing her dancers in preparation for a tour that brings them to McCarter Theater on Tuesday, February 28, their first visit since 2003.
Tharp is describing character traits that she looks for in dancers. But the three words can also sum up Tharp and her own career; traits that have brought this whirlwind of physical, intellectual, and creative energy to the pinnacle of recognition she enjoys.
Tharp has produced a body of work that could be considered extraordinary by any measure: 129 dances, four full length ballets, 12 television specials, six Hollywood movies, four Broadway shows, two figure-skating routines, and three books. She has been recognized with one Tony, two Emmys, the Vietnam Veterans of America President’s Award, the 2004 National Medal of the Arts, the 2008 Jerome Robbins Prize, a 2008 Kennedy Center Honor, and 19 honorary degrees, plus many grants, including a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
McCarter audiences will see two works during the February 28 performance: one of Tharp’s classics, “Nine Sinatra Songs,” and the 2015 work “Preludes and Fugues.”
Speaking about “Nine Sinatra Songs,” Tharp says, “It’s about the various stages of love from infatuation to deep familiarity, which is not always pleasurable. It spans the board in relation to specific characters we have known in our lives, and stories you may have lived out.”
The dance has been an audience favorite ever since it premiered in 1982, and it has been memorialized on PBS’s Dance in America with Mikhail Baryshnikov. The way in which Tharp folds ballet and her own inimitable movement into ballroom dance was unique when it premiered and continues to be thrilling. Each form, in dialogue with the other, takes on new coloration and reveals new facets of itself.
If “Nine Sinatra Songs” is like a condensed story ballet, in which we recognize characters and situations, “Preludes and Fugues” is more like a tone poem, portraying a mood without narrative thrust. Tharp spoke in the interview about its “cosmic aspects, elements that have an objectivity that is ordinarily not connected to narrative detail, a powerful source outside the specifics of a lifetime.”
This work, danced to preludes and fugues of J.S. Bach, is, like its musical source, based on contrapuntal and fugal manipulations of movement. Many of the movement phrases have been mined from the extensive video archives of Tharp’s movement invention over her career.
That invention started early. Tharp credits her mother with “creating” her, not only in the classic parturitional sense but also as a performer. “It all begins with my mother, who gave me an extraordinary education,” she says.
Tharp tells the story of her mother debating between two spellings of her first name — Twila or Twyla — and deciding on Twyla “because it would look better on a marquee.” The dancer was named after Twila Thornburg, the “Pig Princess” of the 89th Annual Muncie Fair in Tharp’s native state, Indiana.
After moving the family in 1951 from their small farming community to southern California — where Tharp’s parents operated a drive-in movie theater — Lecile Tharp enrolled the young Twyla in a dizzying array of lessons, from ballet to tap, baton twirling, drums, and viola. Tharp learned early on the virtue of industry, as she raced between these classes and excelled in academic studies as well.
Independence has also been a constant in her life. Tharp was the much older sister to three siblings, including a set of twins. As sometimes happens, the twins developed their own language and included the other sister, Twanette, in their private world. Also, Tharp’s father had built the family a rambling, southern California ranch house, in which Tharp lived in a separate wing from the rest of the family, starting in her early teens.
Later, coming from California to New York City to study at Barnard in the early 1960s, she built on that framework of industry and independence, pursuing a major in art history while simultaneously feasting on the great smorgasbord of dance that thrives in New York City.
Her own history shows her studying with the demanding ballet teachers Richard Thomas and Barbara Fallis, founders of the New York School of Ballet, and a wide range of modern dance gurus, including two influential dance innovators: Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. In the process, the self-described “workaholic of the highest order” built a frame of reference much broader than that of either the usual dancer or scholar.
In her autobiography, “Push Comes to Shove,” Tharp admits that “as a near graduate of an Ivy League school I harbored the intellectual snobbery with which so much of our culture looks at both the dancer and the athlete, pronouncing them dumb. Still, I proceeded to dance, because of all the things I could do, dancing was the thing I could do best and enjoyed most.”
She also notes that as she moved forward into a career in dance, she continued to show an independence of thought and action, thinking creatively and entrepreneurially about how to conduct a career in the dance world. And after a relatively short stint as a dancer in the Paul Taylor Dance Company, she chose to pursue her own creative path instead.
When in 1972 her second marriage to painter Bob Huot ended in divorce and she found herself the sole support of their infant son, Jesse, Tharp decided to be self-sufficient and control her own economic circumstances — unusual in the then male-dominated dance world. She pursued commercial projects as well as concert dance projects, and she insisted on a much-closer-to equal pay as a choreographer than any female had requested before then.
The third Washington-related virtue, integrity, comes through in her exhaustive search for a new way of moving. Tharp shows through her work how she loves ballet technique, all the various modern dance styles she was sampling, and the jazz classes she took with Broadway dancers. She has been brought up on a voracious devouring of different types of physical movement.
She left behind both the monumentality and gender-based movements that characterized the work of modern dance giants Martha Graham and Jose Limon and started looking for something more than the rigorous architectures of beauty of George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham.
Tharp spent endless hours tapping into her instinctual mind through improvisation. The endless years of study of all those different dance forms gave her an unparalleled “muscle memory” bank. Through this daily “creative habit,” as she calls it, of improvisation, Tharp painstakingly developed the movement phrases that become the raw material for her dances.
Back in 1970, when the use of video was still infrequent in the dance world, she started recording these daily improvisations, both her solo sessions and those with her dancers, to re-capture the moments she might want to use in her dances. All dancers are trained to remember movement phrases, but Tharp found that when she activated the part of her brain that would capture and remember the phrase as it was being expressed in her body, she was also inadvertently imposing judgment on the phrases, and closing down her potential creativity.
The videos helped her to suspend judgment until she reviewed them, editing many hours down into seconds of usable material. These hours and hours of video are what now constitute her archives, along with recordings of the completed works.
But these phrases are not what we see on stage. Like the classical composers she so admires (Bach, Mozart, Haydn), Tharp puts these phrases through their paces — variation, inversion, retrograde, fugue, plus a few manipulations that a composer can’t do, like changing which part of the stage is front as the phrase is being danced.
Generating seemingly endless variety and freshness, Tharp is not particularly worried about having the audience try to decode the dances’ construction. “Musicians will see these relationships. My hope is that people who are curious and interested will sense that there is a relationship,” she says.
Does she feel that audiences need to “know” anything about dance to enjoy her work? “People say to me, ‘I don’t know anything about dance.’ But, actually, you do, because you got out of bed and you’re walking. My take on the human species is that it does know about dance — people move.”
She hopes that the audience will bring their curiosity — a quality that is also one of the most important that she looks for in potential company members. This mental openness needs to exhibit itself as “wanting to discover ‘can this happen?’ and also having the energy to pursue that exploration.” Additionally, she is looking for dancers who can bring to the studio “intelligence, humor, and generosity.”
Primary in the physical realm is a thorough knowledge of ballet technique and the specific muscular strength that comes with mindful training in that field. Asked if there were other dance techniques she would like to see an auditioner conversant in, she says, “My thinking on that is that, apart from ballet, we mostly make it up as we go along.”
Of the current dancers performing at McCarter, three-quarters of the group were members of ballet companies before joining Tharp, including such groups as England’s Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, and New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet.
Coming up next for Tharp is her second commission from yhe Royal Ballet, which will be set to Haydn’s 45th Symphony. Tharp is looking forward to returning to London to work with the company again, having choreographed “Worldly Wise” for them in 1995 to the music of Giacomo Rossini.
Additionally, Tharp has developed a series of technique classes that can help further a dancer’s education in the type of concerns that are essential to a Tharp performance: issues of weight, coordination, quick change of direction, suppleness, and quick decision-making.
“We are evolving a two-year curriculum with Indiana University to employ several key works of mine including ‘The Fugue’ and ‘The 100s.’ The early dances were about making better dancers. ‘The Fugue’ was about maintaining rhythm. ‘The 100s’ worked on strengthening memory. The curriculum will be available to the entire university, not just the dancers.” Indiana University is one of the few universities with a strong major in dance performance.
Tharp looks forward to this visit to Princeton. She was first invited to bring her company to McCarter Theater 40 years ago, in 1977. Tharp, along with the Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor dance companies, has been presented more frequently by McCarter than any other modern dance company. And Princeton University awarded Tharp an honorary doctor of fine arts degree in 2007. She says: “Princeton is a thinking school, and a school that seeks to put its student body into our culture in a positive way, wanting the students to have a responsibility to create something more than they found. I would like to think that I have something to offer to this community.”
In a blog Tharp published during her 2015 tour, when she premiered one of the works that will be shown at McCarter, she wrote of the courage to keep dancing and creating in the face of uncertainty and tragedy:
“It is the courage of going on and on, over and over, that will hold the center. The meaning of these words is made clear by the last section of ‘Preludes and Fugues.’ Dancing a repeat of the first prelude in C major, the entire cast begins in a simple circle facing inward. It is a prayer. May we all live together in harmony. And may the very end be respect given our courage to search, implicit when the single ballerina is lifted high and circled down left in an eternal present, as the curtain comes down.”
Twyla Tharp: The 50th Anniversary Tour, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesday, February 28, 7:30 p.m. $30 to $75. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
Also on February 28: Twyla Tharp Dance Company manager and former dancer Alexander Brady and McCarter’s special program director William Lockwood will host a free program to preview the Tharp performance and discuss the choreographer’s work and legacy. Noon, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton.