Interview with Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
Share This:

The first dance Twyla Tharp choreographed for her new modern dance company in 1965 was called, “Tank Dive.” Tharp walked out in a pair of heeled shoes and vigorously hurled a yo-yo toward the floor as Petula Clark’s pop hit, “Downtown,” began to play. According to her website, the title referred to Tharp’s belief that becoming a successful choreographer was equivalent to the chances of successfully diving into a thimbleful of water from a great height.



Fifty years later, there is no question that Tharp has made a success for herself in dance. She has choreographed for ballet companies, movies and Broadway. Awards include a Tony, two Emmy’s, nineteen honorary doctorate degrees, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a 2008 Kennedy Center honor. “They don’t give Oscars for choreography,” she said. There was no masterplan on this journey, however. “When opportunities came, I took the jobs that appealed to me, “ she told me. “I know dancers and vocabularies. I design where they live and bring it into focus. I ask what can I do that hasn’t already been done.”


Her company’s one-night engagement at the Lensic on September 22 is part of a 17-city tour to celebrate half a century of making such dances. With a group of twelve hand-picked dancers, many of whom have worked with her on other projects, she created two new pieces instead of reconstructing any of her greatest hits. Anyone curious about earlier works can find a veritable Twyla Tharp museum online, with a chronology of “one hundred twenty-nine dances, twelve television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines.”

All this is listed, with videos, descriptions and performance histories, under the “Works” tab on her website,


Tharp began studying with leading modern dance and ballet teachers in New York while she was a student at Barnard College in the early 60’s and briefly danced with Paul Taylor. She started her own company in 1966 but eventually turned her back on her roots among the experimental ranks of downtown artists like Merce Cunningham and the Judson Church experimentalists, and moved uptown to work with a ballet company in 1973. The dance was “Deuce Coupe,” a collaboration for both her own company and the Joffrey Ballet, set to music by the Beach Boys. “New Yorker” critic Arlene Croce called the dance a masterpiece. “Her dancers seemed to be moved by a form of private communication which made them unlike any other dancers that one could see,” she wrote. “Most of the time in “Deuce Coupe,” the dancers appear to be behaving with such realism that we could believe they were making it up as they went along.”


Tharp often juxtaposed classical ballet technique with a free-wheeling style of movement that draws from jazz, tap, modern dance and martial arts. “I use a strong isometric approach to movement,” she said. “There is a grounding involving the spine and abs. We use force and power in all the movement, there is a lot of resistance.”


Croce wrote, “Tharp has a logician’s mind and a vaudevillian’s heart. The tension between the two is her hallmark.”

In Santa Fe, the logician and the vaudevillian will once again be on display. “Preludes and Fugues,” set to excerpts from J.S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” Volumes 1 & 2, represents the Apollonion ideal, “the world as it ought to be,” she said.  “Yowzie, “ set to music from “Viper’s Drag,” a jazz compilation arranged by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein, is more “street.” “It’s Dionysian, the way life really is.” “”Yowzie” is built on characters and relationships, she said. “There is a dysfunctional couple, and rampant partnering,” she said. At the Lensic, each dance will be introduced by a “fanfare,” composed by John Zorn.


While Tharp performed in many of the early works, and can be seen in the archival videos as a nimble and idiosyncratic dancer, at 74, she no longer demonstrates steps with the kind of abandonment and ferosity she expect of her dancers. “I can still think in a physical way,” she said. “In order to evolve movement ideas, you have to be on your feet. I still execute things. I can still show them.”


While “Yowzie” is all chaos and couples, “Preludes and Fugues” is an opportunity for Tharp to channel the most analytical tendencies in her personality, she said. Much of the dance involves the use of a circle. “Bach’s music is circular, it starts in C major and ends-up back at C major. The geometry is a kind of infinity, the circle embodies pre-Socratic philosophies, a kind of perfection. It’s like celestial movement,” she said.


She looks for dancers with the technique to pull off Bach-style perfection, but who also can act. Her Broadway experiences, including “Singing in the Rain,” “Movin’ Out,” and “Come Fly Away,” were opportunities to expand musical ideas into narrative ones through dance. Working in the movies, on the other hand, was sometimes a style-cramper, she said. “Movies are time consuming. There’s no opportunity for one’s own thinking. You’re hired to service a director and a script.” These directors included Miloš Forman (“Hair” (1978), “Ragtime” (1980) and “Amadeus” (1984)); Taylor Hackford (“White Nights” (1984)) and James Brooks ( “I’ll Do Anything” (1994)).


Her work on the movie, “White Nights” was an opportunity to team-up again with the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryhshnikov, whom she first worked with in creating “Push Comes to Shove” for American Ballet Theater in 1976. “Mischa had perfect proportions and impeccable classical technique. My own classical technique was serviceable. But I had a sense of rhythm and movement that he wanted to understand. He wanted to look away from the mirror, to understand a different kind of dance, to feel it in his body. For him, it wasn’t at all about how it looked.”


Dancing in the production will be John Selya (who has been working with Tharp since 1988), Rika Okamoto, (formerly in the Martha Graham company) Matthew Dibble, (whom she discovered at the Royal Ballet) and Ron Todorowski, who worked with Tharp on Broadway. Newer to Tharp are Daniel Baker, Amy Ruggiero, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp, Savannah Lowery, Reed Tankersley, Kaitlyn Gilliland, and Eric Otto, many of whom were discovered in ballet companies presenting Tharp works. Tankersley is the “baby,” just having graduated from the Juiliard School in June.

Tharp’s preparations for the tour are documented in a blog she is writing for the “New York Times.” On August 25, she wrote, “The question I am most often asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer is from the air, from the past. From a belief that there is a future.” (Link to Tharp’s blogpost.)

On September 8, she let readers in on a secret—that movements of the new Bach piece were dedicated to some of the choreographers who had influenced her. Merce Cunningham’s section is referred to as the dancers as “Slow Death”. “I studied technique with Merce for four years, and some of this time was spent trying to master stillness,” she wrote. The “Fugue in D Major” is for Jerome Robbins, with whom she collaborated on a dance for the New York City Ballet (‘The Brahms Handel Variations”). “Every dance he ever made featured uncomfortable alliances, and their theme usually came down to competition,” she wrote. Martha Graham was the inspiration for “Prelude in B Flat Minor.” Tharp studied with Graham and marvelled at “how much weight could a small body, mine or hers, acquire with intense training and determination.”

“Fugue in A Flat Major” is for George Balanchine. The dancers refer to this section as “The King and Queen” and it is the most complicated of all the movements. “It is built primarily on one basic theme with its inversions, reversals and retrogrades.” It was the tension between a classical past and a radical present that most inspired her about Balanchine.

“I watched to learn—not to ask, “Do I like this?” but rather, “What is it saying?” she wrote. “I am so grateful to have found a place I can go that is so much bigger than myself.”






Presented by The Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.

7:30pm, Tuesday, September 22

$20-65; 988-1234,

“All across the nation such a strange vibration, People in motion, There’s a whole generation with a new explanation, People...
“Unfortunately, I have a lot in common with Eugene Onegin,” said Ethan Vincent, the 30-year-old Apprentice Artist who understudied the...
In July, BalletX kicked their return to in-person performances with a program of premieres in the open-air Mann Center in...
Search CultureVulture