An unorthodox choreographer with a mind of her own
April 1980
Art Director: Robin McDonald


Every once in a while an artist comes along who is such a mischief maker that he or she upsets all the unexamined solemnities in an art form. Twyla Tharp is such a figure in modern dance, which was a very solemn art indeed in the 1930s and 1940s when it was inventing itself, and even in the 1950s and 1960s when it was reinventing itself with a new solemnity. Twyla, as a young choreographer, would have none of this. By her very cockiness, she made people pay attention to her‑whether or not they liked her dancing‑and she made the media pay attention too.

Twyla Tharp was first discovered in the middle 1960s, working tongue‑in‑cheek among the modern dance avant‑garde. Since then she has been rediscovered every time she does something unexpected‑her first piece to old jazz (Eight Jelly Rolls, 1971), her first, and then her second piece for the Joffrey Ballet (Deuce Coupe and As Time Goes By, both 1973), her ballet for American Ballet Theatre (Push Comes to Shove, 1976), her TV shows for WNET (1975 and 1977), her dance on ice for skater John Curry (After All, 1976), her choreography for the movie Hair, 1979, and her latest substantial season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, February 1979, with its four premieres.

The spring 1980 dance season will be Twyla's fifteenth anniversary as a choreographer, and her company is coming to Broadway for the first time (Winter Garden Theatre March 24‑April 12). Here is a phenomenon: a person who begins her career as a modern dancer in Paul Taylor's company, leaves it to make her first experiments in choreography and fifteen years later arrives on Broadway with a company of sixteen dancers who‑unprecedented in modern dance‑are all on fifty‑two‑week salaries. How do you explain this?

Explaining Twyla's impact means understanding what exactly was new about her when she emerged. It wasn't only that she invaded worlds (like the ballet) where modern dancers hadn't set foot, it was what she did when she got there. When one first saw a piece like Deuce Coupe in 1973, in which her company danced with the Joffrey dancers, one was astonished by two things: the sheer vigor of the dancing and the nature of the mind that would put the Beach Boys together with classical ballet. The ballet's structure reflected real social moods‑duos and trios of dancers acting goofy, herds of dancers gently jostling each other across the stage, detachments of dancers hurtling out from the wings‑and yet much of the material was truly formal. There to prove it was one lone ballerina in a spotlight, threading her way through all the action, both violent and dreamy, in her little dance‑which was a string of classroom steps alphabetically arranged. Thus by formal, physical, and humorous means, Tharp expressed the most private and various wishes of a whole generation, and ended the dance with their public desire‑a utopia: the whole crowd, together in a group by the end, stirring the space with different lazy motions‑individuals detached and in harmony.

When Twyla's company revives Deuce Coupe in the spring season it will look to us like a reflection of a past time. But in 1973 it was one of those rare pieces of art that is formal‑even classical‑at the same time it is absolutely steeped in popular experience. Twyla was one of the first to "digest" the youth phenomenon, and to express it without its politics or sentimentality. For the general culture she was one of the signs of the demise of a sixties Quaker aestheticism and the recovery of wit and urban impatience. This was signaled by her music, not only the best rock music of the moment, but what she used first‑the older American jazz of Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke which the rock culture had put out of favor.

And for the dance world, the Tharp style cut through the lingering influences of modern dance of the past. For several years before Tharp appeared, the renegade dancers who called themselves the Judson Church Group had been working on this, patiently undoing that dance theater of crisis, anguish, sex, and religion that had been built by Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Josh Limn. They had walked back and forth on the floors of rooms like human numbers, tracing circle and star patterns; they had "manipulated a host of props, improvised intently and de‑theatricalized themselves with a vengeance." Twyla came along and brightened this task by refusing to submit to any piety, old or new, and by adding the element of creative impertinence‑not just impertinent concepts but impertinent, sudden tempos that woke the audience up. Tharp, in fact, reinvented the audience for her generation by assuming it could receive dance information almost as fast as she could provide it.

And she reinvented that important and elusive item in dancing which transcends categories like ballet, modern, and social dancing‑a body that is contemporary. Tharp dancers as early as The Fugue, 1970, or Eight Jelly Rolls, 1971, had the knack of looking the way everybody at that moment would like to look, and moving the way they would like to move. Martha Graham had made this quintessential dancing body for her time, so had Isadora Duncan before her and Merce Cunningham after. Tharp, in the fine old modern‑dance tradition, started with herself, her own body as a testament of her time. Its size‑Twyla's smallness‑was unimportant; it was rather its proportions, its small base for pivoting, its athletic readiness, its dancer's pliant feet.

And she dressed this body, discarding the leotards and tights‑without‑feet of modern dance, and commissioning costumes for dance after dance‑costumes that were mostly stylizations of the layers of loose and tight warm‑up clothes dancers put on themselves to rehearse in. Tennis shoes and then jazz shoes appeared on her feet‑and lo and behold, we are now in the era of postmodern dance which is defined by modern dancers wearing shoes like ballet dancers. But the major reason for Twyla's hold on contemporary dance style is not the shoes and the clothes but the dancers in the company besides her. Twyla in fact never worked alone. Early on she must have understood that an oeuvre based on herself might make only a small splash on the map of her art form, and so she found other dancers to study, to work with, to physically "think" on.

In the transient world of modern dance, it is striking that two dancers from "long ago" are still with Tharp for this spring season‑Sara Rudner, who joined her in 1966, and Rose Marie Wright, who came in 1969‑both completely different dancing personalities from Tharp herself. Here was Tharp, sleek, boyish, athletic, efficient, and given to sudden jerks and twitches. On one side of her was Rudner, dark, exotic, with no categorizable training but rather a total circulation of movement through her body that seems effortless and yet energized. On the other side was Wright, rawboned, tall‑six feet‑and clearly ballet trained, with the long sinews and the clear placement only ballet training gives dancers.

With Rudner, Twyla could see her every impulse translated into dramatically natural terms; with Wright she could explore‑and has for years‑everything you can do in dance, armed with academic training in ballet. Tharp, Rudner, Wright‑this was the historic cast of Twyla's 1970 The Fugue, a stark and intricate construction which looks alternately like tap‑dancing, hopscotch, and Cossacks showing off. From The Fugue on, the manners of all three dancers have grown indissolubly into the style called Tharp dancing.

When Tharp dancing spread around in the early seventies, it brought certain other dance styles into focus‑it brought dancers into focus. The revelation of Tharp's three works for ballet companies was realizing that the ballet dancers in them looked like Tharp dancers‑or rather, as Deborah Jowitt, dance critic of The Village Voice wrote, they looked like themselves, young American people alert and expressive of their culture. Tharp even made Mikhail Baryshnikov, the pride of Russian classicism, look like a twin of her‑or else he thoroughly imitated her‑both in the ballet Push Comes to Shove, and in Once More Frank, the duet she made for him and herself.

These resemblances were not caused by mysterious world‑wide coincidences in dancing so much as by Tharp's choreographic clarity‑in style as well as steps.

Good dancers respond instantly to clear intentions. And in the world of American ballet, any intentions as clear as Tharp's automatically define a territory. George Balanchine is the only figure in American ballet who has set forth a whole style of dancing, and that means tempos, gestures, projections, manners. American ballet dancers not trained under a Balanchine influence‑as well as all the modern dancers nowadays proficient in ballet‑tend to look eternally neutral, ready for someone to come along and give them meaning. For some of them, Twyla has. Herself a product of the monumentally eclectic dance training that is possible only in this country, she has celebrated this modern, polyinfluenced athletic/balletic body in her dances; she has written it large.

How she did it is first of all a matter of the mechanics of her style and then of the structure of her dances. The Tharp style, simply described, appropriates the mechanics of ballet: the articulation of the feet, insteps, and ankles which muscularly permit a clean balletic action of the legs, in turns, kicks, traveling steps, jumps, and poses.

If Tharp legs are balletic, Tharp upper bodies are not: they speak much more of the inner rhythmic world of social dancing or tap dancing than of ballet projection. Her dancers' arms are quite simply tap arms (or reminiscent of them), with the casual backwards and forwards swinging that never stops, except when Tharp deliberately puts in a balletic pose which can't help but be read ironically. The arms, I think, are supposed to reflect a constant undulation that is going on within ‑up and down and through‑ Tharp bodies, as though to loosen them, as though she's set ballet virtuosity floating in some liquid, or in the cool insulated self-involvement of modern personalities.

Where Tharp got all the other dancing material is somewhat obvious given her California childhood with all its lessons, which has now become a kind of legend. Tharp studied music ‑harmony, theory, viola- and dancing ‑ballet, tap, tap‑toe, acrobatic, baton‑twirling, and ballroom. So did many little girls all over the country, but not all of them got the same explanation for so much activity. The Tharp family probably taught Twyla unconsciously that all the lessons were giving her material with which to construct something later. It was an in­ventive family that had moved from Indiana to California and done well in the construction business. Twyla's father designed buildings‑a car salesroom, a drive-in movie plant, a restaurant, a phenomenal house‑and then, according to her, "he got right in there with the mortar" and built them, and then he ran them. They are stunning examples of the old American notion that you build something first of all to serve a purpose‑in other words, the form follows the function (as American sculptor Horatio Greenough said about a racing sulky in 1838)‑and the building materials, whether brick, stone, or wood, follow the function too. That doesn't mean the function can't be grand‑in fifties California, drive‑ins and car showrooms were probably the grandest things around. The point is this was a special, American kind of ethic about building: it rated traditional aesthetics way below sturdiness, spaciousness, and suitability.

It is intriguing to think that Tharp translated her parents' atraditional construction ethics into art. The building metaphor also gains resonance from the number of times George Balanchine has compared himself to a carpenter. (Tharp, incredibly, is one of the first young modern dance choreographers who has publicly admitted studying Balanchine's craft.) But the important point here is that Tharp's home‑spun do‑it-yourself aesthetics recalls earlier American methods of constructing entertainment. Popular arts of the past‑show music, jazz, theater‑dancing and the exuberant movies of the twenties and thirties‑were made on this principle: you can throw in anything you want to if the whole structure is sound. In bringing this principle into avant‑garde and ballet concert dance, Tharp has opened a clear channel backwards‑and outwards‑to dancing's popular origins.

Structure, then, is an important term for Twyla. For the dances themselves, or the work, in the case of TV and movies, it means applying the form‑follows‑function idea. Most of her dances to old jazz take their form from the music: Eight Jelly Rolls, The Bix Pieces, Sue's Leg, Baker's Dozen, these are music visualizations in the fullest sense. As ensemble works they project an air of spontaneity within the community of the dance‑like those great jazz jam sessions where moments of solo virtu­osity were part of the very fabric of the ensemble sound. Tharp has freely borrowed and translated jazz and Dixieland wit, the sense that everybody is jumping into a certain mood. Witness the sensational "turns" in Eight Jelly Rolls: comedy duos, seductive solos, and a virtuoso "drunk" scene Twyla made for herself. She has also used classical music, sometimes in the same piece with jazz, borrowing from it certain compositional techniques like inversion, retrograde, fugue, counterpoint.

Others of Tharp's works have different kinds of structures. If problem solving is the name of the method‑if in other words the form emerges when the function is identified‑what's to stop the artist from making dances for movies, television, ballet companies, skaters . . . ? Twyla's mind is keen enough to embrace and comment on whatever medium she takes on in a job. Her ice dance for John Curry was all lyric line and glide. Her main television effort, Making Television Dance, used video tricks like multiple images in the very dance material she made for the show. Her dances to Hair were the most rigorous and intelligent presentation yet of so‑called hippie culture: by alternating tiny motions under pressure with big, swooping, aggressive moves, she caught the enormous tension and menace of that world, as well as some of the rapture.

But where is Twyla going? She has convinced the audience and the dance world, including a host of choreographers younger than she, that the visual field of a dance can be as dense, as formal, and as seemingly spontaneous as a piece of music, no matter what kind of music. But she can't just keep making good dances: the demand of current audiences for legible "ideas" as well as Tharp's own taste for challenge mediate against it.

The Broadway season this spring will be a feast of her finest ensemble pieces: The Fugue, Eight Jelly Rolls, Baker's Dozen, plus a revival of Ocean's Motion to Chuck Berry's music, a new version of Deuce Coupe for her company (which is big enough now to replace the Joffrey cast) and a new piece to the Brahms Paganini Variations. In addition there will be an attempt to realize an old dream of Twyla's ‑that of, uniting all the forms, all the skills, into one piece of theater that will occupy a full evening. Tharp describes it as something like a narrative ballet, with dancing, with music, but with words instead of mime‑which are now being written by Tharp together with playwright Thomas Babe. John Simon is composing original music. We can only wish her luck and ourselves luck, since original, vital material on our stages is the most hopeful sign that exists of the health of our culture.