Twyla Tharp on Her Troupe’s 50th Anniversary, Muscle Memory, and Finding Dancers With Personality

"From a very early age, the feel of music was programmed into my hands." Photo: Ruven Afanador/New York Magazine

At 74, choreographer Twyla Tharp is overdue for a breather. Over a 50-year career, she's continually evolved, making dances that blend the rigor and technique of ballet, the loose insouciance of jazz, the unpretentiousness of pedestrian movement, and her own razor-sharp wit into a style that's wholly her own yet somehow never predictable. She’s created more than 160 dance works, many of which are now modern classics, for ballet companies; her own modern troupe, Twyla Tharp Dance; and Broadway (most notably the hit Billy Joel dance-musical Movin' Out). For her group’s golden anniversary, the dance icon is touring with a diverse company (members range from Tharp veterans to a recent Juilliard grad to a current New York City ballet soloist) and two major new pieces: Preludes and Fugues, set to pieces from Bach's canonical Well-Tempered Clavier, and Yowzie, propelled by a jazz score. After a countrywide tour, Twyla Tharp Dance performs at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center November 17–22; in a frank discussion, Tharp explained how even the most seemingly non-dancelike things from her past — typing, baton-twirling, and working at a drive-in among them  have informed both her past and present. 

You had an incredibly broad training for a dancer. Do you see ways in which that allows you to make the diversity of work you do?
My mother was an extraordinary educator, and she was very conscious in her application to my development. The first of the actual lessons I had was the keyboard, because she was a concert pianist who became a teacher to help support the family when the war came. By the time I was 2 years old, she already knew I had perfect pitch.  From a very early age, the feel of music was programmed into my hands. I also played viola, which means the rhythm of the bow, the ways in which the fingers work on the instrument, the energy it takes to pull that out of the muscles of the back, is something I feel when I hear solo violin. The thing is, everything for me is physical.  

In our culture, dance is put at the back end of the heap, everything is considered more relevant to our culture, would you agree?

Well, unfortunately, yes.
Why is that? Movement is what produces all of the other art forms. Movement produces the tone of the violin, the brushstroke, the word.  Why is it that we’ve forgotten that we use movement? I think we all need to think about this! People will say, “Well, I’m not an expert on dance,” and I say, “Stop right there. Did you get out of bed today? Have you walked?” People do not connect their own physicality with what they see, and I don’t understand it.  People have been intimidated by the art form, and part of that is the art form’s own doing, there is that elevated aspect as opposed to something that can be participated in by every folk who can move about.

I grew up in a drive-in theater, right? Working there from when I was 8. I saw that people respond to movement. The speakers were often not functional when you were on the field, and you were simply seeing movement on the screen. This was movement that was designed for a wide public base, and I’ve always understood that to be a possibility.

Do you see concrete things in your work that come from the other choreographers you’ve learned from?
Balanchine’s ballets I respected greatly, they had a great deal of importance in my growing understanding of how dance could function — those ballets became standard for me.  He obviously was enormously sophisticated in terms of counterpoint, and that became a real commitment for me, and has been my entire career. My knowledge of Balanchine repertoire is very limited, but I have a sense of his precision and control that I always can connect to. When I think of ways of organizing space, I think sometimes of Merce [Cunningham], I studied with him as a teacher but I didn’t know his repertory, and probably he’d disagree radically with my idea of his sense of space, but nonetheless, I have one. But I’m concerned that what I do should communicate something to everybody — I’m the old-fashioned showman.

I now think of certain movements or steps as classic Twyla steps —
If I knew what that was, I would avoid it. Sometimes when I start a ballet, I’ll go, “Okay, guys, we’re taking arabesque out — there will be no arabesques in this ballet,” but then it’s like, “Whoa — that means you’re never gonna have one leg behind the other, or what?” It’s about reconfirmation and reanalyzing whether something is truly necessary. And I’m here to tell you arabesque probably is. But in terms of steps I kind of protect or see as having evolved, no.  

For example, take In the Upper Room, that was a conscious effort to assemble a mode of movement that could be compounded from several different vocabularies, bases, namely the power of the parallel position and the deep drive of yoga. That piece was done in the early '80s; yoga was not something that was being practiced on a daily basis at that time. It was a discipline I had practiced, and I found it had a movement component in it that was different from what I had been using before.  Now, having done that before, I don’t do it again. It will no doubt become embedded in muscles, it will become something I don’t think about anymore, but I’m not going to be able to cleanse the body of all its learned lessons.

Do you have an encyclopedic muscle memory? Like, will you find yourself doing a certain movement and then remembering it’s from something specific in the past?
Stuff is retained, but not consciously. Muscle memory I’ve had from the get-go; I was a kid with tap lessons and hula lessons and ballet lessons, and you know, I was a very good baton twirler, okay? I was a double baton twirler. I do quite an admirable job, if I do say so myself.  Actually, what I learned from baton twirling is how to handle props — that’s a lesson, like farm chores, that transfers to abstracted movement. It’s very valuable.  These things don’t get repeated, but they have lessons inherent in them that will transfer.

Photo: Ruven Afanador/New York Magazine. Hair and Makeup by Nicolette Brycki; Shirt by Ralph Lauren

The two new pieces your group is performing have elements of older work in them, right?
There are sections in the first piece [Preludes and Fugues] that are out of the video archive. My video archive goes back to 1968, and there are sections in there from ’87, ’88 — they’ve never been used before, but they’ve been around for 20 years. That means I had access to a range of movement that’s not ordinarily available. Nobody in six weeks has the range of movement that I was afforded by going into the archive. That is what Bach did with The Well-Tempered Clavier, he referenced all kinds of stuff from his past work — some he’d used before, some he borrowed from Vivaldi or whoever, Pachelbel a big favorite, and by the time he’s done with it, it’s very valuable and very Bach. That was the thinking in the first one.

The second one [Yowzie], it’s a totally different kind of vernacular, with a kind of swing, it’s hung movement — you can either stretch the muscles and hold the bones elevated or hang the muscles on the bone, and the bone will hang and release in a different way, so you can generate a kind of movement in a different way, if the movement is hanging rather than being supported. There are two direct quotes from 8 Jelly Rolls — literally, onstage, twice. Twenty seconds of movement exactly the same as it always was. It’s a tip of the hat: 8 Jelly Rolls was the first piece I did with music. We’d been working in silence for five years, and then I decided, well, let’s move along here. When you use music for the first time, it’s a big deal! Not many people do five years of silence and then say, “Music, let’s see what that does.”

Your dancers are all such individuals — there’s not a weak link in the group, and there’s really a specific reason to watch each dancer. You’ve said you look for specific qualities in them — that they’re smart, they have a sense of humor …
This is what you need to explore possibilities. You go into a studio, you need people who are really smart, who are brave, who have a terrific sense of humor, who are unbelievably well-trained if you want to try and discover things.

And I’ve noticed they tend to smile when they dance, in a very natural-seeming way …
They like to dance. They enjoy moving. When you move and you’re feeling pleasure, you’ll smile. If the movement feels right to them, this is true of any dancer, they’re not going to suppress their response. On the other hand, there’s always the showbiz smile, and that’s not something we’re interested in, that’s not truthful. That doesn’t reside in muscles, that resides in the attempt to sell tickets.

Making two new major works at your age — does it get any easier, or is it as hard as it’s ever been?
The answer to how do you work is: work. Does it get easier, does it get harder? No it’s always been hard, and some days it’s easy. You’re always going to be shoulder against the wheel somewhere, and that’s fine. One of the reasons why I set out on this venture was to make new work that would represent something of the past but would gauge what I could do in the beginning versus what I can do now. Something has been learned, and something has evolved. My very first piece was four and a half minutes long, and there was very little movement in it — I stood still for a long time! That was all I could do as a choreographer, it’s all that was authentic to me, it’s all I really believed I knew. That’s changed. But it doesn’t make work easier; in a way it makes the work more demanding, because the more tools you have the more you want to use them. 

*A version of this article appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.