With Pop Music, Quirky Moves and Antic Imagination, Twyla Tharp Keeps the Dance World on Its Toes
For a certifiable member of the avant garde, her morning begins prosaically. Two steps in front of the mob, Twyla Tharp darts off a Seventh Avenue subway in downtown Manhattan and scrambles up to daylight.
The Franklin Luncheonette is her first stop. “My instincts are punctual, so I never wear a watch,” she explains, munching a lumberjack’s breakfast—two sunnyside eggs, hash-brown potatoes, an English muffin and two hot chocolates heavy on the whipped cream. She is finished in precisely five minutes.
Carrying a takeout lunch of Jell-O and two coffees, she weaves through the gray canyon of textile warehouses to a shabby building. At 9:50 a.m. Tharp is four floors up in a loft which was once her home and is now her studio. She throws down the Wall Street Journal and strips off her jeans and crew-neck sweater. Then, stark naked, the delicately muscled, 104-pound gamine telephones her nearby office and listens tensely to the bulletins. “Okay, okay. We’ll take a bushel of sneakers,” she finally decides in a flat nasal twang. “If they can get them for us wholesale.”
Twyla Tharp, at age 35, has dealt and danced to the top of her peculiar profession. Just as Isadora Duncan bared her breasts to liberate the spirit of dance and Martha Graham elaborated freedom through her falls and contractions, Twyla Tharp has loosened things up further by putting the discotheque into her art. For major dance companies like the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey, she has choreographed the music of the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry and Frank Sinatra, then turned around and put the shimmy and shake into Joseph Haydn.
As philosopher-queen of modern movement, Tharp is a pioneer in the use of special video techniques in adapting ballet for TV. Last year she adapted her nonchalantly elegant jazz quartet Sue’s Leg for the WNET Great Performances series on PBS with trick photography as an integral part.
Songwriter Paul Simon saw it and announced that he wanted Twyla Tharp for his own TV special in the fall. She agreed and will choreograph an original Simon song. The opportunity for that kind of exposure might seem like the most irresistible opportunity for a dancer since The Ed Sullivan Show. But Tharp is not blinded by glitter. “I am an intensely pragmatic person,” she proclaims. “You can’t eat the limelight.”
Lorne Michaels, producer of NBC’s Saturday Night and of the upcoming Simon special, describes her as a consummate businesswoman. “She is not your proverbial dancer with her head in the clouds,” he says. “She knows exactly what she wants. And she doesn’t budge unless she gets it.”
Other major figures in the entertainment world have pursued Tharp too. Dino De Laurentiis asked her about choreographing King Kong (and then changed his mind). Milos Forman, the Academy Award winning director, came around recently to talk about the choreography for a film version of Hair. She isn’t sure she is interested. And director Arthur Penn sized up her company during its first major New York season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last spring when 2,000 seats were sold out for 10 straight performances. It was possibly the dance event of 1976. Her new work for the 1977 season will be seen in May (and will use dancers in sneakers performing to Paul Simon hits like Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard).
Still alone in the studio, Tharp scrounges among coffee containers, sandwich scraps and newspapers littering the floor. She finds a roll of blue toilet paper and blows her nose. Then she dresses—wool tights over nylon tights, a blue leotard, three sets of leg warmers. She clumps over to the record player and puts on a Bach cantata. For the next 50 minutes she stretches, raises her legs, does splits. Her shag becomes lacquered with sweat. Occasionally, she breaks for a sip of cold coffee.
When Rose Marie Wright, a six-foot ballerina converted to modern dance, arrives, Tharp is lying on the floor with her legs propped up on the wall.
Just thinking,” she says in a detached greeting. Moments later, four more women and five men arrive and change uninhibitedly in front of one other.
Tharp perches on a desk chair, her sneakered feet tucked under her, watching the dancers fall, trip, slide and turn. She moves her neck like an ostrich, blinking her eyes rapidly. “Can we try this again with the music?” she asks Rose, who is gasping. “Here we go again from the first real fake-out.”
Later she turns to Jenny, “I know those sneakers are a bitch, but you got to get out there and fight it.” Then to Richard, “Not forever and a day with this,” she says impatiently. “Clarify, Richard. For God’s sake, Richard, pretend you’re a fan at a football game.”
At 6 p.m. her dancers are hot and dripping. She moves over to the video equipment to watch a replay of the rehearsal. “Yeah, I know I’m late,” she says to the dancers huddled around. “But once in awhile,” she adds, “lack of punctuality afflicts even me.”
The legend of Twyla Tharp, destined to be a paperback sequel to dance history’s Isadora myth, began in tiny Portland, Ind. on July 1, 1941. She was the first of four children—two girls, two boys. Their mother, Lecile, who trained as a pianist, decided daughters Twyla and Twanette would be artists (Twanette became a lay architect).
At 2, Twyla was put on the piano bench. Two years later violin lessons were added, then tap dancing and acrobatics at 6. “Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to do it,” she says. “I was just a kid. You either do it or you run away.”
When the family moved to San Bernardino, Calif., her parents invested in real estate and operated a drive-in movie. Every Saturday Mrs. Tharp drove her daughters into San Marino for dance lessons with a student of the great Anna Pavlova. During the week Twyla studied viola, drums and baton twirling. “It was a back-breaking discipline,” she recalls, “and I never had friends. I’m sure I could have found at least one person in the world with my interests if I had wanted to. But I was too worried about practicing.”
Between school and the lessons, Twyla sold popcorn and french fries at the drive-in. She detested high school, but graduated valedictorian. “I don’t see anything contradictory about that,” she says. “Just because you totally hate something doesn’t mean you don’t excel at it.” At Barnard College in New York she switched from pre-med to art history when calculus stumped her. In addition to her studies, she took three or four dance classes a day. “I decided to study with every great dance teacher still living,” she explains.
Shortly before graduation in 1963, she joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company. In nine months, discontent, she left. “No choreographer was doing anything particularly interesting,” she said, “so I decided I would have to do it myself.” A revolutionary in the arts began to emerge.
By day Tharp worked at the perfume counter at Macy’s. By night she searched Greenwich Village for free rehearsal space for the all-female company she had formed. “I don’t think our sex was that significant,” she says. “What was important was that we all had college degrees.” In the spring of 1965 her company premiered at Hunter College. The entire work lasted only four minutes. “I hadn’t been choreographing for very long,” she explains, “and I decided four good minutes were better than 20 bad ones.” The critics were not so generous about her early work. The New York Times, in particular, was occasionally severe. “It was hard on me,” she concedes today. She pauses. “It was absolutely devastating.”
For the next five years Tharp’s company persevered. At first, her steps toward a major revolution were tentative—a topless/bottomless solo; a shift from bare feet into sneakers; a dance outdoors on a basketball court.
In early 1970, as the country settled down from the tumultuous ’60s, she moved to a 200-acre farm in upstate New York. “I had to be original to survive,” she recalls. She picked berries, baked pies, refinished furniture and “started reading album jacket covers—I owe my knowledge of pop music to them.”
Back in New York in 1971, revitalized, she unveiled Eight Jelly Rolls, with choreography set to Jelly Roll Morton’s jazz. What she accomplished was ruled less by tradition than by Tharp’s own humor and instincts, a quirky, uninhibited movement. In most of her dance, the elegant and expected is superseded by the natural, nonchalant and spontaneous. Perhaps even more germane to her success is an ability to reflect the experiences of her generation. Onstage Tharp is totally American—hers is the spirit of hamburgers, ice cream and the frug. Martha Graham used a Greek myth or two for her inspiration. Twyla Tharp resurrected Groucho Marx. (At several points in her The Bach Duet, a romantic pas de deux, the two dancers casually spit.)
After 1973’s premiere of Deuce Coupe to a medley of Beach Boys hits, she was embraced as a pop messiah. “When I saw the dancers moving to our music,” said Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson, “I just sat there and cried. It was the greatest moment in my life.”
In January 1976 Mikhail Baryshnikov, possibly the greatest Russian dancer of classical ballet, did Tharp’s slapstick Push Comes to Shove. The dance establishment had bestowed its ultimate seal of approval.
It is evening and Tharp leaves the studio as she arrived—alone. Home is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Dog-tired, she prepares dinner for two. Her son, Jesse Alexander Huot, 6, is the most constant male in her life.
Twarp met his father, Robert Huot, an artist and teacher at Hunter, in 1963. Their romance grew, with Huot creating the costumes for her choreography. After Twyla became pregnant in 1970, they videotaped the changes in her style of movement during the gestation. The tapes were aired on the Today show.
When Huot and Tharp drifted out of the underground, their six-year marriage fell apart “for the usual reasons,” she says, tight-lipped. She admits to another marriage and divorce, but insists, “I can’t say anything about it.” She and Huot reportedly share in the raising of Jesse.
If Tharp is evasive about discussing her private life, a close associate suggests the reason may be that she really doesn’t have one. “Everyone Twyla knows is related to her work,” he says. “You know she likes you if she suggests you collaborate.”
In the past, by her own admission, she has had difficulty dealing with people. An associate says, “Twyla intimidates people because she’s intimidated by them. She gets very tense about first meetings because she is so afraid of the impression she is making.”
Success, however—and her growing son’s example—may be changing Twyla Tharp. “Jesse is better adapted and more confident about himself at 6 than I am at 35,” she says in a rare moment of insight. “When we go to the playground he just walks right up to the kids and asks them if they want to play. If they say no he isn’t crushed. He goes on to the next person. I’m just learning to do that.”