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Twyla Tharp

Choreographer

interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 2 November 2017

IN WELCOMING TWYLA THARP David said that the Ballet Association had jumped at Kevin O’Hare’s suggestion that we should give a donation for a partially new work by Twyla.

 …there’d never been a time when she didn’t dance – there was movement, hop-scotch, jump rope, general restlessness and squirming, she was good at squirming.

How did she get into dance? Twyla said there’d never been a time when she didn’t dance – there was movement, hop-scotch, jump rope, general restlessness and squirming, she was good at squirming. She started training at a neighbourhood class from about four and formal rigorous training at eight or nine which was toe tap, tambourine, etc. She was born in the mid-West and moved to Southern California where, aged about 10, she began studying with twin sisters from the Paris Opera. Her mother decided she should be encouraged and drove twice a week 90 miles each way from their home to Pasadena to her teacherBeatrice Collenette who’d been one of Pavlova’s seven baby ballerinas based at Ivy House. Twyla studied with her until she went to New York where she studied with classical teachers at ABT, among them Dickie Thomas and Barbara Phallis, an excellent teacher who taught the Royal syllabus. Her husband who’d been in New York City Ballet was a bit erratic but they loved him dearly. Barbara was consistent, with a technique underlined throughout by Cecchetti, which was much appreciated by Twyla. There’s no history of dance in her family who are farmers, though her mother was a concert pianist and Twyla studied keyboard, violin, viola and percussion which was invaluable as music and dance go together.

New York training. She graduated from school in art history, and then had to make choices whether to continue academically, or pictorially or to move. The decision was made to dance because, though not a good career, Twyla knew that’s what she did best. She made every effort to dance professionally but that didn’t pan out well as she wasn’t appropriately mouldable. So, it only lasted 18 months and when that failed she realised she would have to make the dances herself though she had no idea what a dance was. She’d not been trained in choreography and always says there are two things in which she’s had no training – choreography and sex. She decided to choreograph so that she could dance and for five years from 1965 worked with a group of women whom she called ‘the bunch of broads’. It was a high-level group but they made no money and just did what they wanted. You might call that a company though most people would require earnings and that didn’t happen till 1972. In 1968 they got a commission from the American Dance Festival, then in Connecticut College, to produce a full-length piece called Medley which was performed outdoors. There were 66 people in all – the six ‘broads’ plus 60 ‘found objects’ and it became the first flash mob. They had no way to promote it, they worked totally illegally in the park, practising at 5.30am before the police and football teams came out, so they just popped up, did their number and went home. A company carries rep which they didn’t have and every time they made something it was a new adventure. Normally in a company there are production costs and people want payback from their investments and with repertory they can spread their efforts and cover a broader base of performance. Twyla’s group would do just two, three or four performances which they actually called religious rites!

In those first five years they did about 25 pieces which have never been performed again. Her first piece which she considers Opus 1 is called The Fugue, made in 1969 for the ‘bunch of broads’ and still performed a lot. The first dance is never equalled. There was a piece shortly after Medley which is called Dancing in the Streets of London and Paris, continued in Stockholm and sometimes Madrid which was performed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York so in essence that was the first commission though it didn’t pay the costs, but they called it a commission so they could appear to be more established. They did their first European tour in 1966. It was Robin Howard, an early supporter and a wonderful man who spent a considerable fortune on modern dance, who brought them over to London. Twyla quoted what wasn’t their first review but is one of her favourites which said ‘three girls performed last night at the Victoria and Albert Museum, one named Twyla Tharp, and they’ve threatened to do the same tomorrow night’.

When did another company commission a piece from them? Twyla said she was five years in New York working in non-conditions with no studio space and they were even thrown out of one location because it was thought they were monopolising the space for their rehearsals. The girls were bright, mostly college graduates, and one suggested they get derelict properties from the city so they could go into them and work there. After that Twyla got an injury and left New York for ‘the first time for ever’ but returned about a year later because the girls wouldn’t go away. She went to a farm four hours north, and the girls came up and they kept working. She decided to go back to the city and they became more professional – applied make up, combed their hair and might even have had a couple of costumes. Kermit Love, the puppeteer, was also a designer who did work for Balanchine, and somehow saw them and decided to help them, making clothes and designing a couple of pieces, one of which, called Eight Jelly Rolls, they did here at the Roundhouse in the early 70s. He also made The Bix Pieces with music by Bix Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman, and included a Haydn quartet.

Bob Joffrey was in the audience and decided she could write a ballet for his company. She told him she’d never seen his company and perhaps she could do Swan Lake but Bob suggested something a little less ambitious…

Bob Joffrey was in the audience and decided she could write a ballet for his company. She told him she’d never seen his company and perhaps she could do Swan Lake but Bob suggested something a little less ambitious would be appropriate. She went to a number of his performances to watch his audience, his dancers and his rep. She made Deuce Coupe to the Beach Boys music, which was very successful as it was destined to be. It incorporated a lot of elements which she found valid. Graffiti had just begun emerging in New York and the kids with spray paints were doing over-passes and subway trains and were being chased by the police and gave off a wealth of colours. She told Bob they needed that for the backdrop and he said OK, Twyla then said they needed her company and his company and he said OK. And we’ll need a fashion designer to do the clothes and he said OK. They went to the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, built in 1880, a phenomenal 4,000 seater house. Bob saw her piece and thought it wasn’t all it could be so gave her another two weeks of rehearsal and she revamped it. In the same year Bob asked her to make another piece which she agreed to do just for his company as she and her group didn’t want to tour. Twyla suggested doing a ‘classical’ piece using 18 bars of the final movement of Haydn’s 45th symphony but Bob wanted more so she kept adding though didn’t include the first and second movements.

After being with the Joffrey, she got a person known as the executive director who decided the dancers should have pay checks because they should be able to eat. They worked out how much they needed to live on and made a commitment to pay the dancers and this continued as the company grew until 1989. They were paid for 52 weeks a year which was and is unusual in the States.

The second piece Twyla made for Joffrey was As Time Goes By. Her company did it once in rep, it’s been danced by Paris Opera, sometimes she allows excerpts to be used by ABT students or Indiana University, a facility with which she’s now developed a formal relationship for pedagogical purposes trying to develop another kind of syllabus and a curriculum for dance departments. They have done one of the movements. (Violette Verdy was at Indiana until she passed away.) Twyla never intended to do the first and second movements. When Kevin O’Hare asked for something for the Royal she began thinking up ideas across the board but couldn’t come up with anything. You can never find what you’re looking for – it has to sneak up on you. Normally Twyla works her way through Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and this time Leonard Cohen, but decided against them all before remembering the Haydn which has now become The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ and uses the entire 45th symphony – an incredible piece of music. It’s unique in musical history. There’s a traditional story about the derivation of the 45th. Haydn preceded Mozart’s Figaro by about 10 years and it is about revolution and power and force of people who are kept from their righteous needs and homes. Haydn’s patron, Prince Esterhazy, stayed outside Vienna for the summer and although Haydn was allowed to bring his family there the players were not. Haydn said he would write a symphony of enormous power and the velocity coming from the opening passage is as powerful as anything Beethoven wrote and then it tapers down to the 4th movement when you are finally left with two violins in the pit. History recalls that the next day Esterhazy gave in and said they were leaving. It’s an incredible piece of music, very dramatic, a political statement and expressive of the needs of practitioners.

Was it her choice for the pas de deux? Kevin wanted a commission for Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb, and though Twyla hadn’t been in class with them they have had a lot of exposure in a variety of genres and styles and she thought they’d be capable of making it through. The second movement is a very long adagio, the first very aggressive, hard hitting and powerful. Initially she thought she was crazy asking two dancers to survive for 14½ minutes but that’s what she did.

How did she link the new work with what had gone before? Twyla said the As Time Goes By section is as it ever was and is faithfully reconstructed by a man who was in the original cast and he has done a fantastic job. It’s cast with younger members of the company, ensemble and soloist ranks, and the commitment and energy of the kids is extremely impressive as is their technique. They are much stronger than the Joffrey which is as she’d expected. What she didn’t know was how the material would hold up – perhaps we’d let her know after opening night? The question was how to connect this couple with the original piece. In a way it’s a prequel, working from classical vocabulary. Previously she’d never have gone for a formal classical arabesque but now we’ve ‘grown up’ and we do it and acknowledge that change is change. Things beautifully executed have a life, and that is part of what is classical, in this case having the couple fit in with the material which the kids do later. So, we have the first two movements and then As Time Goes By. In the final adagio the last movement is split in half. The couple makes a cross of the stage and, as if they’re visitors, they look back and then go upstage and are lifted overhead so the last image shows the end of As Time Goes By with the couple up high, and although the final adagio isn’t strictly classical it’s reverential and ends with a very young member of the company left alone on stage. The original for this role was in fact a jazz dancer with no ballet training. Kevin was very brave to go along with such a young member of the ensemble in such a big part. Twyla came earlier in the year to cast the ballet and David asked how she chose the young dancers. She said blood and guts and technique which doesn’t come easy – it’s not a given but a long, hard fought-for process and some people do it brilliantly and some adequately. Then she looks at who has that special something going on and she’s pretty good at sniffing that out and likes to reward it.

 Going back in time, Twyla’s first work for the Royal Ballet was Mr Worldly Wise in 1995 … Darcey Bussell, Irek Mukhamedov and Teddy Kumakawa were the principals.

Going back in time, Twyla’s first work for the Royal Ballet was Mr Worldly Wise in 1995 which Anthony Dowell asked for. Darcey Bussell, Irek Mukhamedov and Teddy Kumakawa were the principals. She started from scratch and tried things out. She got some push-back, not everyone wanted to be a carrot or an aubergine but she thought they looked quite good as snap peas! Rossini is a strange figure, the first rock star who made money, wealthy and able to retire young, and held salons and could be bizarre and let his mind float about. Petite Messe is unusual, then you’re building a score, casting, developing narrative, working with the dancers. Great dancers are wonderful, they try never to represent moves exactly and they all wanted to try out something. They had some adventures and there were memorable moments. Difficult to make a through line that’s a narrative without language. It is action coordinated with divertissements etc and it’s a balancing act and a major challenge. Everyone was extraordinarily supportive, the wardrobe department, who are still here, were spectacular. The music is extraordinary and the orchestra would like to do it again.

She returned two years later for Push Comes to Shove. It was Misha Baryshnikov’s premier entry into Western culture. He’d come over a year before Push and had basically done Giselle. She began with Bach but a Russian with Bach is not a good idea – it became too morose so they used Haydn. He had seen As Time Goes By and the choreography for the man and figured out she could make something for him. Let’s get life in there so Haydn was right. A bit morose in the circumstances and Misha didn’t speak English so it was a singular challenge. The part evolved and Twyla realised he really wanted to do a Broadway show so she put in a little ragtime which he liked very much and the character began to evolve for him. It was a story ballet with a good second movement and a double chorus and she enjoyed working with him. It required a forceful, powerful performer. Teddy did very well but was a different dancer and he’d seen Misha’s tape which isn’t good when the proportions and technique are totally different as well as the charisma.

Twyla has done five shows on Broadway which she said wasn’t an enjoyable experience. With Misha it wasn’t that he so much wanted to be on Broadway or dance for folks from New Jersey but more that he liked to feel he could entertain and that would be an OK thing. Bigger forces and bigger budgets are at play on Broadway. It’s ten million dollars to get in the door plus production costs and if successful there’s the maintenance which is a nightmare. Then you look at results, costing and checking, and the show is frozen. In Moving Out with Billy Joel they had 100 moving lights, individually programmed. Everyone had to be exact and in time which isn’t good for the body or soul night after night. It’s a huge problem with these sorts of commercial enterprises.

Twyla has also done five films, three with Milos Forman, a great director. One of the challenges is pacing yourself. It’s difficult when you’re waiting around for the weather and then have to be ready to go. There’s a special kind of discipline and a special kind of pressure. Now you can record on video camera but in those days there was no video. Every night you saw the rushes and decided whether to edit or re-shoot. Every night was an opening and it was very demanding. You have to be right there and ready to roll. It’s a collaboration made more complicated because of the camera. In Amadeus in Prague the producer wanted live candles, a thousand of them, with the authentic tallow and they all had to be lit at the same time. It was her third picture with Milos. He is a great director because he wants his project to succeed and puts aside his ego in order to assimilate what there is if it’s good for the baby. In the cutting room it’s another matter.

Asked how she found time with her own company as well as doing all these new pieces and films and musicals. Twyla said she got the energy by dancing, discipline, commitment, and being very organised. She believed in dancing and the beautiful possibility of the human body. It is always about what the human body can do. Because she dances she’s constantly reminded of it and that’s how she does it.
She has written several books. The first, Push Comes to Shove, was a biography up to 1988, the second The Creative Habit concerned the creative sense of things, and the third The Collaborative Habit concerned her practice of working with other people in different areas.

Twyla is currently working with students at the University of Indiana on a course designed to explore the uses of movement. The curriculum is directed at the entire university, a huge captive audience, not just dancers…

Twyla is currently working with students at the University of Indiana on a course designed to explore the uses of movement. The curriculum is directed at the entire university, a huge captive audience, not just dancers, showing that things that can be expressed by every moving bit. In the first semester she’s using Torelli from 1971 whose regular phrases can be manipulated and reconfigured. The curriculum includes Twyla’s Treefrog technique where the feet act like suction-pads. It’s about grounding and extending the challenge of how you expand the physical potential. In the second semester she uses The One Hundreds made in 11-second segments which started by four second bits, you remember in segments outside the peripheral vision. People feel they are more comfortable with language but you learn how much a body can remember by repetition. How we learn can be valuable to everybody and they are investigating the possibilities. It’s done in silence – people respond more to music than to movement. The third and fourth semesters evolve from the previous and she hopes it will be useful.

David asked which choreographers had influenced Twyla. In 1961 when she was in college it was before the so-called crossover moment. There was ballet, modern, jazz, tap and folk and she’d been exposed to all this. Balanchine was still working but although she thought her ballet was OK she knew enough to know that she wouldn’t work in NYCB and that was the only place he taught. She saw all the premieres over five years and there was a degree of precision and care to every detail which was wonderful. Twyla had the good fortune to meet him several times and found him charming but they probably wouldn’t have got on for very long. Jerome Robbins, whom she knew from the mid 70s until his death, was a very good friend and they did write a ballet together. He is not so easily categorised. Balanchine was grounded in the ways of dancers and Jerry was a man of the theatre so it was a different kind of sourcing. He came to rehearsals but Balanchine, who saw shows, never attended rehearsals. She studied with Merce Cunningham for about four years, describing him as interesting and complex. He was still dancing at 40. Martha Graham was around in 1963, which was the year Twyla graduated. It was a privilege to be in her classes and she learned a lot from her technique. The way she constructed her work wasn’t as Twyla worked and she was more dramatically orientated. Paul Taylor was in some of the classes and she worked occasionally with him, making her London debut in the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1963 with his company which numbered about five dancers including Paul. He was an extraordinary dancer until he had physical problems. She learned from watching the company and feeling their commitment and focus. Are you prepared to come in at 9am and do three hours work before you begin your normal day?

Twyla put on The One Hundreds at the Barbican in 1998 bringing people who weren’t dancers into her world which was amazing. Would she do that again? She said it depends on the individual and how they enter into the experience. She recalled from that group a ‘bank teller’ who was overcome with emotion and started to cry. A questioner said she was that person and, asked by Twyla if she became a professional dancer, replied ‘in my heart and my kitchen’! As a means of attracting the young to the ballet it was genius.

In The Upper Room was the crossover. She purposely grafted one piece into an earlier piece. Fugue was the starting place from at least a decade earlier.

Asked about other companies Twyla said every company is different and she has enjoyed working with many different companies.

David thanked Twyla very much for a fascinating evening.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Twyla Tharp and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2018.

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