Twyla Tharp: a lifetime in dance

The great American choreographer talks about her work, her influences, and her upcoming show at Schnitzer Hall

Meeting with children after a performance of Yowzie in Los Angeles a week or so ago, Twyla Tharp  was asked how long it takes to make a dance.

“A lifetime,” she said, compressing James McNeill Whistler’s response to a question about why he was asking for a thousand pounds compensation in a libel suit against John Ruskin. The 19th century critic had slammed a painting that in literal terms had taken him a couple of days, Whistler said, to make.

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

On Wednesday, Tharp stops at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland on a tour celebrating half a century, or a lifetime, of making dances. The performance, part of the White Bird dance series, is sold out. Her “extraordinary group of dancers,” in her words  (and I believe them), will perform a program of new works that by all accounts – including hers, in her marvelous New York Times “Artist’s Journal” – sums up her phenomenal career as a choreographer who has cultivated and changed many fields of dance.

That career began with a solo titled Tank Dive that Tharp performed in the spring of 1965, less than a year after her graduation from Barnard College, where she majored in art history. In a telephone interview last week, I asked her if her liberal arts education in a top women’s college had informed her work. Yes, it had, she replied, with its “thorough grounding in history.”

That’s an interesting statement.  As a member of the Judson Church movement, Tharp’s career began with a rejection of dance history: the use of the proscenium stage, of sets, costumes, lights (theatrical values), of narrative, of music.  What was left was visual and highly physical, and those elements have always informed Tharp’s work, although she is intensely musical as well. Whether it’s a ballet like In the Upper Room, or the hair-raising closing number of the first act of  Movin’ Out, the 2002 “jukebox” musical set to Billy Joel songs in the time of the Vietnam War, audiences can expect to see high-energy dancing with visual elements that are part of the dance. The Movin’ Out number featured tanks and falling bodies and reminded me so vividly of the torture of watching the evening news in those days that I reached for a drink that wasn’t there.

Tharp said firmly that Barnard being a women’s school had had nothing to do with her work, and when asked about the ongoing struggles of women choreographers to achieve recognition today, never mind assignments from large companies, she acknowledged that there are certainly issues still, but that she could only speak to her own experience.  “I was helped by three men who are great dancers: Anthony Dowell, Baryshnikov and Rudi Nureyev.” Dowell commissioned her to make work for England’s Royal Ballet, when he was artistic director; Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet, and it is absolutely true that to Baryshnikov in particular she owes much of her career in ballet.

He owes her quite a bit, too: she made wonderful roles for him that skewed and stretched his impeccable classical technique and set him on the path he took toward modern/contemporary dance.  Push Comes to Shove, Sinatra Suite (which we saw here in the 1980s when Baryshnikov toured with a pickup company of American Ballet Theatre dancers) and The Little Ballet can all of be seen on a video she directed titled Baryshnikov by Tharp. She also did the choreography for the film White Nights, including a fantastic challenge dance for Baryshnikov and the late Gregory Hines.

I asked Tharp if her approach to choreography changes with the genre she’s working with, and she made an interesting distinction between commercial and concert dance. For the former, the venue itself, a large theater, “impacts on what I design, as well as a general audience. For concert dance my priorities are different. I’m asking questions that interest me, while I’m hoping of course that they will be of interest to the audience.”

In an interview with Gia Kourlas published last spring in the New York Times, Tharp talked about why she makes dances in the first place. “What can [they] offer us culturally and aesthetically? … What kind of choices does [dance] suggest politically? What’s fair? What’s just? This can all be reflected in a dance.”

Tharp studied with such masters of American dance as Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Antony Tudor and Paul Taylor, in whose company she danced for a year.  She told Kourlas that she “loved all their answers, but I needed my own question. I didn’t want to synthesize them. And I didn’t want to rebel against them.  I wanted to respect them and find a way where what I’d learned would be valuable to me. It was never for me about breaking their conventions. It was always about working in tandem to a new point.”

Which brings us full circle to Wednesday night’s program. It begins with Preludes and Fugues, set to music from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and ends with Yowzie, set to American jazz. Both pieces begin with a fanfare commissioned for the occasion from John Zorn, whose compositional styles are as eclectic as Tharp’s.  This program of new works took a few months, and a lifetime, to make.  And judging from the reviews of the tour so far, like Tharp’s “extraordinary dancers” they are well worth seeing.


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