Twyla Tharp, shown above at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2008, says the pandemic affected her body: “In terms of routine, discipline, just ordinary everyday activities – the body doesn’t know itself at the moment.” Marc von Borstel / PBS hide caption
Marc von Borstel / PBS
Marc von Borstel / PBS
Neither the pandemic nor old age can stop the legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp from her work. During the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, 79-year-old Tharp choreographed several dances through Zoom. One was with four dancers, each of whom were in a different time zone.
“One dancer was in New York at noon. One dancer was on the west coast before breakfast. One dancer was in Denmark five hours before him and one dancer was in St. Petersburg working at mealtime,” says Tharp. “Nothing could stop us from having community. And that is exactly what dance can give – dance can give community.”
It is not the first time that Tharp has worked in unusual conditions. In the 1960s, Tharp and her dancers performed in parks and shopping malls, as well as on subway platforms and rooftops. “If it was some kind of level, it was fair territory,” she says.
Tharp has choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Joffrey Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. She also worked with David Byrne and Billy Joel on Broadway shows.
Tharp is known for mixing ballet with other dance styles: “I’ve always felt that a dancer should be able to dance over the line,” she says. “That is, when I started working in New York you were either a modern dancer or you were a ballet dancer. I thought that was ridiculous because I could be both a ballet dancer and a modern dancer, so shouldn’t everybody else be able to do that? ”
Tharp is the subject of Twyla Moves, a new documentary from the PBS series American Masters.
Started dancing as a small child
I started with music education in both piano and violin and drums, and the dance came afterwards. On the other hand, my mother was a concert pianist and when I was a little kid I went to her classes. And so I always wobbled and then I could crawl and then I could kind of hop. So I always danced to music.
As a result, her early choreography differed from others
I think the first was to eliminate the idea of steps or styles – it was getting to the basics of movement. And we looked very often [ordinary] common types of movement. By usual, I mean that people couldn’t be particularly demanding in training, and then how could that be expanded and more challenging for us who have had the benefit of this type of training. …
When I started I wanted to get back to the mechanics: they either start on the right side or on the left side. They coordinate either in the opposite direction to the leg moving forward or parallel to the leg moving forward. They move either forward or backward or sideways from side to side. These are all kinds of really technical questions [a] Kind of starting point because I didn’t want to take anything for granted. I wanted to feel like my fundamentals were solid.
Twyla Tharp won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Choreography for her work on the musical Movin ‘Out. James Nederlander / PBS Hide caption
James Nederlander / PBS
James Nederlander / PBS
To dance without music
Music is much more pleasant than movement for the general public. I often say: take a movement and make happy music, [and] The audience thinks it’s a happy dance. Put sad music on and they will think it’s a sad dance and the movement is exactly the same. So I wanted to try and see how emotional the movement is. What excited people? What was provocative? What would you register? Not all, but many visual questions were asked. And that wouldn’t have been possible with music because music is so overwhelming.
Why she wanted to found an all women dance company in 1966
I think we knew there was a trend in the world of art across the board, be it music, painting, sculpture, or literature [or] to dance. And we wanted to strengthen ourselves so that we could produce what we thought was our strongest suit. And our strongest suit was a lot of technique and a lot of incredible ensemble work, but also strong individual voices. … We all had unique qualities and that was more evident if we were all women, if there had been a man in the group we would have were the women [and] he would have been … the man, and that would have become the defining characteristic rather than the individual traits of every human being.
About the desire for dancers with different body types in their society
To be inclusive, you have to be differentiated. So through [different dancers who are] big, small, classically trained, [without] classic training, [a] Great athlete – all of these different qualities would redefine and add a three dimensional quality to the work that is obviously lacking when there is a body type represented throughout the ensemble. You understand this need [for] Fungibility in professional companies because when a dancer goes out they want to be able to use another as directly and efficiently as possible and hopefully in the same costume. It’s all the bottom line, right? For me, that wasn’t what dancing was about, and it still isn’t.
About the choreography of men who did not want to be taught by a woman
I am a very strong jumper. And I jumped higher, longer than most men. So it was like, “OK, guys, let’s go.” So I’ve basically always been able to work with men: through strength and through some kind of challenge.
I am a very strong jumper. And I jumped higher, longer than most men. So it was like, “OK, guys, let’s go.” So I’ve basically always been able to work with men: through strength and through some kind of challenge. … But men can be very arrogant – we all can. … If they were given the opportunity to get around these prejudices, many of them would thankfully do so. I mean, you will see some male dancers in the Deuce Coupe … doing extraordinary things. I think they were happy to be asked to work differently at some point. Maybe it took a while. … a couple never came around, but that’s fine.
What your body can do at the age of 79
In this last year, with the pandemic and its disturbances in terms of routine, discipline, ordinary everyday activities, the body does not know each other at the moment. So I can’t tell you what to ask of him until I’ve familiarized myself again. And that’s what I’m doing right now. … Whenever I complete one of these big projects, I’m out of shape, and that just goes without saying. I’ve been in this position before, not that age, but I know getting back in shape is an obligation. It won’t happen by itself.
Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for the broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Beth Novey customized it for the web.