Twyla Tharp, photographed by Richard Avedon.

Twyla Tharp, photographed by Richard Avedon.

Q&A with Twyla Tharp 

Twyla Tharp aims for clarity in all endeavors — conversation included. As more than one writer has pointed out, her dances share a lot in common with her cadence: brisk, precise (or at least in search of preciseness), forceful; sometimes contrarian, but not without empathy and humor. You probably already know about the Portland, Indiana-born choreographer and dancer's Tony Award, her Kennedy Center Honor. And if you don't, then we'll add that she choreographed Milos Forman's films Hair, Ragtime and Amadeus; that she worked with David Byrne to develop the works for stage The Catherine Wheel and Singin' in the Rain; that's she's developed shows set to music by Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel.

Tharp, 73, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of her company with the premiere later this year of two new pieces: 22 Preludes and Fugues, set to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier; and Yowzie, which incorporates music by early (Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller) and late jazz pianists/composers (Leonard Bernstein, Henry Butler). Tharp says the latter piece is very much "in the pocket" for her, because "the very first piece I ever did that had music was to Jelly Roll Morton" (Eight Jelly Rolls in 1971). Indianapolis isn't yet on the itinerary for that 50th anniversary tour featuring the two new pieces, but she is coming to UIndy March 18 for a lecture on 'The Creative Habit,' which happens to be the title of her anti-Romantic, pro-pragmatic 2003 book on creativity and movement.

NUVO: There's a lot of keyboard, a lot of virtuosic keyboard, in those two new pieces. Why?

Tharp: Amongst other reasons, my mother. As you know, I'm from Indiana. I was born in Jay County in Portland, and my first keyboard instructor was in Muncie. My mother went to the American Conservatory in Chicago, and she was actually the first woman in her county to have a college degree. That's the era were talking about. She was a concert pianist, so I started my life hearing keyboard music.

NUVO: What does the choreography look like for the Bach piece? How does it come into dialogue with contemporary dance?

Tharp: You'd need to see it. I'm not the right person to ask what it looks like. The thing about Bach that is very compelling is that the man was a really great artist, which means that he had a very broad umbrella. He's, as I say, ecumenical. He has such a huge reach in his work that he can be comfortable with anybody and anything. So from a stylistic point of view, Bach is very much at home with any forms that one wishes.

NUVO: And with the jazz pianists, you get to work with plenty of rhythmic complexity and syncopation.

Tharp: Well, let's not forget Bach was perfectly capable of syncopation. I'm also doing, right now, the Beethoven Opus 130, which has the great fugue in it. It's not like jazz invented syncopation, but jazz is obviously in the vernacular, by which I mean that it's music that we can walk around to a little more easily, perhaps, than some of the more dense classical artists. It's extremely physical, and it also has an enormous sense of wit about it.

NUVO: With Jelly Roll Morton, you're revisiting the music that you used for your first piece. In the same way, are you revisiting any movements or concepts that you've used over the past 50 years?

Tharp: It is true that if you have an eye for these things there are three, maybe, references in the Morton piece ... to the Jelly Roll piece that I did originally in 1971. It's not much — it's a total of 20 bars or something. You'd have to be a real sophisticated eye, and there are probably not that many of those around. While I do have the original cast of Eight Jelly Rolls on videotape, that piece has not been seen for quite a long time. It hasn't been reconstructed, so you would have to have a pretty dense context in dance to recognize the reference.

NUVO: It seems to me that while someone really getting interested in literature or film can quickly see the canon in its original form, or very close, it's tougher for a dance aficionado to catch up because she might have to wait decades to see something.

Tharp: Yes and no. I have video of everything, which means that when I die, everything will be here, in exactly the same way as with texts or scores. One thing that we are working on in our office is to make certain that the pieces that I think are going to be relevant and useful are put in a context and actually documented in such a way that people can look at them and see accurately what they are.

NUVO: And video's a sufficient way of preserving those or will you be adding other documentation?

Tharp: No, no, no; it's not so much about preserving. Dance has traditionally been considered an ephemeral art that disappears; you see the performance and it's over the next day. That's no longer true; in the same way that plays have texts, that music has a score, dance now has these artifacts, these properties, if you will, that are the work, in the same way that a score is the music, or a text is the Shakespeare. That's now possible, and my generation is actually the first for which this has been deeply true. There were films, obviously, but I'm probably one of the very first choreographers to have such a complete archive of original material.

NUVO: And since we're talking about your legacy, do you have plans for the company to continue after any contingency?

Tharp: Well, hopefully. We're booking. We are basically an earned income group, so it has to do with bookings. I'm not in the 50th doing any of the old material; I'm doing all-new work. Next year we are booking a repertory tour, both some of the bigger pieces in the fall and some of the smaller pieces in the spring.

NUVO: I read somewhere that you were thinking about bringing back Re-Moves, which would be an interesting challenge?

Tharp: I'd love to see Re-Moves done, but I don't think it will be; not next year. It's a very early piece, from 1966. It's the only piece I ever did at the Judson [Dance Theatre], and it's a really stubborn conceptual art piece. It's very interesting; however, it would take a pretty hard-nosed reconstruction situation to put that one back up. It is not, shall we say, entertaining.

... We didn't care if the audience liked it or not and didn't even care if they stayed until the end. That was our attitude, and we continued working in that vein for about four or five years, and then I did Eight Jelly Rolls. That was the first proscenium piece, the first piece with music; the first five years were all in silence. Then we had costumes; we had music; we put on a little makeup; and we acknowledged the fact there was an audience out there. That was a big change.

NUVO: That brings me to a description of your work in The Guardian that I jotted down: "she ditched the counter-cultural aesthetic" in the early '70s.

Tharp: You never ditch anything; if you do, you're foolish. It all becomes part of your subtext; it all becomes something you learn from. I did, in any case. I did all the early work to learn lessons; why would you throw it out? Those are lessons learned. Counter-cultural, I guess, is supposed to mean that's it's anti-traditional and avant-garde. ... That, also, is pretty foolish because, in the case of dance, obviously it's an ancient art form. We don't know all that much about some of the very primitive early forms, but the classical ballet has been studying human movement for, whatever, 500 years. I think it would not be extraordinarily intelligent to just disregard that. When I started working in the beginning, I definitely wanted to do something that would be authentic, that would be ours, that belonged to us. I worked very hard to find a beginning point that I did not recognize, that I hadn't already seen somewhere, and to launch from that. But counter-cultural, I don't think, is accurate because I'm always trying to deal with tradition in one way or another. It's a reality! Why pretend like it doesn't exist. It does.

NUVO: Did you become more comfortable with tradition as you went along in your career or was it always part of your work?

Tharp: It was always there. Remember I started playing keyboard instruments on my mother's lap. I played keyboards for 20 years; I played violin; I played viola. I know the repertoire. You don't just toss that out. I studied art history; I graduated in art history. To throw out 2,000 or 4,000 years of art and pretend like you're starting over? Good luck.

NUVO: When revisiting all these keyboard pieces for the 50th anniversary shows, do you ever play them on the keyboard to familiarize yourself with them?

Tharp: No. I don't have a keyboard and those are disciplines. I'm not really a dilettante and I don't do things in a recreational way. To me, music is not recreation. It's a deep pleasure, but it's not something that I take casually, and I certainly don't have the wherewithal, and certainly not the chops, to take on this music.

NUVO: The traditional narrative is that people leave Indiana or the rural Midwest to find capital-c Culture. But you grew up steeped in fine arts in Portland, Indiana.

Tharp: Yeah, and what's more important is the ruralness. My mother had extraordinarily high aspirations and I'm grateful to her for opening that up for me, in terms of European art and the challenge of the classics. But I'm also immensely grateful for the first seven and a half years I spent on my grandparents' farm, because there I really saw what faith is, there I really saw what work is and there I really saw what development is. ... Growing things is not easy. It's a huge commitment, and I saw people working, extraordinary laborers. I also saw what the miracle of things being alive is. I expect to attempt the same thing in a studio, when I go into a studio.

NUVO: You've written that understanding that we're embodied creatures, that movement is important, can be helpful not only for anyone who's involved in a creative endeavor.

Tharp: It's about the physicality of optimism. It's obviously by now scientifically acknowledged that physical exercises create an energy and enthusiasm in the body that makes people feel better, literally. And feeling better, they attempt more; they're more willing to be forthcoming. That's something that should be accessible to everybody. It has nothing to do with dance, and it doesn't even have to do with rigorous weight training or any of that kind of thing. All of the Indiana relatives have passed away, but I used to have an aunt in Indianapolis who was in her nineties. And I would keep reminding her, 'Now, Selma, we have to wiggle our feet! We have to stretch our legs!' And she said, 'Oh, I know it! Oh, I know it!' It's that basic. Exercise fights depression and it fights sloth. We don't like sloth.

When you talk about creativity — creativity really means the desire to work. That's all it means. Anyone who is in any endeavor can be creative with it as long as this person wants to have something happen. But you've got to desire, and exercise is closely attached to desire.

NUVO: I think one reason why people may find contemporary dance — or any dance — opaque is that they really haven't availed themselves of some of the different tools that might help them to interpret it.

Tharp: Yeah, I think that there's an accusation, and it's somewhat grounded, that dance can be elitist. And I think that's sometimes desired in the dance world. It wants to be supported; it wants to be elevated; and it doesn't necessarily want everyone to understand it. I've always wanted everyone to understand, and I understand that people will think of it in different ways. A child is going to look at it in one way, an adult in another; a person with a deep dance background, historically speaking, is going to see it differently; a person who paints is going to see it different; a businessperson is going to look at it differently. These are all valid points of view. I don't have secrets. I don't think there's anything that people cannot understand. I don't think there's anything that's over their head. I think that one of the things that you learn as you work more and more is people are terrified of what's obvious.

NUVO: And a source of anxiety — perhaps particularly with modern dance — may be that feeling that you're not getting the symbolism of a given piece, when there may not even be any symbols to decode.

Tharp: Right. That's garbage because if you can't understand it, what good is it? Modern dance — and I don't think of myself as modern dance any more than I think of myself as ballet — is movement, and everybody has access to movement, to a greater or lesser degree. So when people say, 'I don't understand dance,' I go, 'Excuse me; did you get up today? Are you walking?'

NUVO: It's all a continuum...

Tharp: But they've been browbeaten into believing that they're stupid when it comes to dance, and people have done this in a way as to maintain the authority for themselves. The critic maintains the authority for themselves; the ballet company director maintains the authority for themselves. 'We will tell you what dance is!' And I say, 'Actually, no you won't. Put it up there and let's see what it is.'

NUVO: But in dealing with that hierarchy, you don't want to throw out all the traditions associated with dance, the virtuosity that's developed over time.

Tharp: No, certainly not. All my dancers are virtuosi; all of my dancers are perfectly capable of the most complex movement. And the audience is capable of complex movement. It's not about dumbing it down; it's not about simplicity; it's about being very clear. All great art is art that we can look at and see what the artist intended it to be. And it in some way or another elevates us. But that's also, partially, our responsibility as viewers, as audience people, as someone who can take advantage of this wealth of information that's in art, whether it's in literature or painting or music or dance. We have to also be responsible; we have to be curious.

NUVO: Do you find that you encounter audiences that are more likely to be open and receptive at this point in your career?

Tharp: Nobody is going to do you any favors just cause you're over 70. And you know what, nobody expects you to. And if they do, that's wrongheaded.

NUVO: Well, I was thinking more that your body of work precedes you, that people know what they're likely to see something excellent.

Tharp: That's fine. Have you looked at our website? And you've looked at the chronology? And you've seen that every five years, there's a fairly substantial body of work, and each one of the periods is very different from the other periods, and that's very important to me. ... In essence, it's a museum. I think of myself as offering up this body of work to folks who want to understand. I'm saving them time. If they want to look through this and think about it, I'm saving them a lot of time and giving them a new place to start from and new questions to ask. They won't have to bother with these old ones.

NUVO: Has your approach of reinventing yourself every five years has made it more difficult to find financial resources?

Tharp: Yeah, but then what is art about? It's not about developing a brand, and for me, it's not about the product. The dance is a result of asking questions and making dancing for dancers — and making it stronger, better and, hopefully, different, each and every time. To me dance is just the vapor trail of the whole process. That's all it is.

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