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Neither the pandemic nor age can keep choreographer Twyla Tharp from her work

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, our interview with Twyla Tharp, one of the most celebrated dancers and choreographers of our time. Earlier this year, she was the subject of a PBS "American Masters" documentary. And this weekend, three duet dances from her archives will be performed on stage in New York City.

New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote, "Twyla Tharp threw down a gauntlet in 1973. She mixed classical and modern dance to make the first crossover ballet, 'Deuce Coupe.' It was a revolutionary work. Miss Tharp remains among the very few female choreographers to have had a lasting influence on ballet," unquote. In "Deuce Coupe," the dancers moved to the music of the Beach Boys record "Little Deuce Coupe." That's an example of something else Tharp became famous for - choreographing to music by people as diverse as Haydn, Philip Glass, Sinatra, David Byrne and Billy Joel.

In 1976, she became the first choreographer to create a dance for Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had defected to the West from the Soviet Union in 1974. Her choreography demands incredible flexibility, speed, power and stamina and the ability to perform dances that draw from ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap, vaudeville and everyday movement. Her work has been performed in every kind of venue, including Broadway and the movies. She's won an Emmy and a Tony, has been a Kennedy Center honoree, and has won a MacArthur fellowship. The recent documentary about her, "Twyla Moves," still is streaming on pbs.org. Terry spoke with her in April.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Twyla Tharp, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you. The documentary is amazing, as is your dancing and choreography. So thank you for being with us.

TWYLA THARP: Thank you so much.

GROSS: So, you know, your dances draw on all forms of dancing. And you studied - when you were a child, you studied ballet. You studied modern dance. I think you took tap lessons. What really inspired you when you were young? What kind of dance did you love the most?

THARP: Well, it wasn't simply dancing. And actually, I started with music training, both in piano and violin and percussion. And the dancing came after the fact. But on the other hand, my mother was a concert pianist, and as a very tiny child baby, I was going to her classes. And so I was always, you know, wiggling, and then I could crawl, and then I could sort of hop, so I've always been dancing to music. But the notion that my mother gave - and I think it is somewhat clear in the documentary - is that you can learn from doing everything. Here's some real lessons, like real keyboard instruction, real ballet classes, real lessons - but everything you can learn from, and you can put it to use.

GROSS: When you started dancing, you didn't have a stage. You weren't getting paid. So you and the dancers you worked with danced in the world instead of in a theater. What are some of the public places that you danced in?

THARP: Oh, Lord. OK, well, the first concert was in a university. It was in the art department. It was in an exhibition space. We danced, as is in the film, on a rooftop that we managed to find somewhere. We danced in public spaces - amphitheaters that were, you know, not being used, parks, malls, subway platforms. If it, you know, basically was kind of level, it was fair territory. We - and how we did it, I'm not quite sure. I wouldn't ask a professional dancer to work on some of the surfaces that we didn't think twice about because very dangerous for sprains, strains, all the rest of it. But what did we know? So, yeah, uneven territory - that was our proving ground.

GROSS: You say something in the film about this that I thought was really interesting. You said, in the park - when you're dancing in the park, you're injecting yourself into their reality, the reality of the other people in the park. We're just an element in the park, like a bicycle. It's not theatrical, like in a theater, where there's performers on stage and audience in the seats. We merged. So that was great for you. That was an interesting experience for you and I'm sure for the people in the park, too. But I'm also wondering, did people always enjoy having you and the dancers there, or were you sometimes seen as an intrusion?

THARP: Yes, that is absolutely correct. We were seen as an intrusion. And we functioned in this way for five or six years, and one of the reasons we stopped doing it was because we stopped feeling - at a certain point, after you have invested, you want to have some kind of reward, return. You're not willing to just, you know, take it as it comes. And we began to feel not loved, shall we say, as though perhaps we were in the way.

There is a very famous example of a great violinist, Bell, who was playing in a subway station in Washington, actually - one we'd been in, about, like, five years before - and he'd never had such an embarrassing experience in his life because nobody was paying any attention to him, and he felt as though he were in the way. Well, yeah, you are in the way. So that - you know, once we began to feel that, it was - well, we don't want to inconvenience people, so maybe we're going to have to think about going to dance where they expect us to dance, and they'll go where they expect to go, and the two will be separated. And that is what did begin to happen.

GROSS: And did that change the kind of dance you wanted to do?

THARP: Well, not necessarily wanted, but had to, yes, because once you're a spectator sport, as opposed to interjected within the activity, you do work differently. I mean, you have to - in a sense, you have to become something outside the purview of a person's ordinary experience, whereas when we're working in crowds or whatever, we were doing what they were doing, only slightly different. But when you're in front of people and they're paying money to see you, separated, you have to give them a show of some sort.

GROSS: Early on, when you were just, like, finding who you were as a choreographer and dancer, what were some of the steps or styles that you were experimenting with to figure out what you could do that was different from what other people were doing?

THARP: I think the first thing was to eliminate the idea of steps or styles. It was to get to fundamentals of movement. And we were looking for very common, shared modes of movement that ordinary - by ordinary, I mean not extremely sophisticated in training - folks might have. And then how could that be extended and become more challenging for us, who had had the advantage of that kind of training? But so there'd be a connection to those who didn't have the privilege or the - you know, the training that we did.

And when I was beginning, I wanted to go back to the very - mechanics. You either start on the right side or the left side. You either coordinate in opposition to the forward moving leg or parallel to the forward moving legs. You're either moving forwards, or you're moving backwards or laterally, side to side. All of these kinds of really engineering questions were our kind of launch point because I didn't want to take anything for granted. I wanted to feel as though my fundamentals were sound.

GROSS: One of the things you're famous for is using all forms of music - Haydn, Philip Glass, Billy Joel, Sinatra, The Beach Boys. But when you started dancing, you sometimes didn't use music at all.

THARP: Right.

GROSS: Was that also about getting down to the very fundamentals of music - I mean, of movement (laughter)?

THARP: Yeah. No, no, no, no. Thank you for confusing the two. That's very appropriate. Well, as I said, when I was a child, I was trained in a number of musical - I played in string quartets. I played in bands, you know, so that I had a sense of where music goes and how it functions, how it operates. And so when I worked for five years, not playing music when we performed - it was always in my head. We had always heard it in rehearsal. We just didn't choose to show it or hear - or perform it while we were dancing because I wanted to learn, what does movement communicate?

And music is much more comfortable for the general public than movement. You know, I often say, take one phrase of movement and put it on happy music, the audience thinks it's a happy dance. Put it on sad music, and they'll think it's a sad dance. And the movement is exactly the same. So I wanted to try to see what the emotional resonance of movement was. What excited people? What caused them to be - what was provocative? What would they register? All of those - not all of those, but many visual questions were asked. And that wouldn't have been possible with music because music is so overpowering.

GROSS: So one of your breakthrough pieces for the Joffrey Ballet was "Deuce Coupe," which you used the Beach Boys record "Little Deuce Coupe." What made you think that that would be the right song to use for your dance?

THARP: I started working with early American jazz. I started working with Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke. And those were the pieces that just preceded Joffrey asking me to write a ballet for his company. And I was not familiar with the Joffrey. And I said, well, I don't - you know, can I come and watch your company for a season? And he gave me a season's worth of tickets. And I watched not only the dancers in the company, but the audience that he had. And my sense of the audience was that they wanted to connect to the movement in a very different way than they were being allowed to, and that, in a way, the music was creating a wall. And I wanted to take that wall away. And so I put pop music in.

GROSS: And was that a song that you felt especially strongly about?

THARP: No. It was...

GROSS: (Laughter).

THARP: First of all, there are a number of Beach Boys songs in "Deuce Coupe." And it actually has a score that we worked under that I composited by taking a theme out of the last song, which is called "Cuddle Up," and doing keyboard variations on it along the way so that it would have a unity. The score would be a score, not just a series of songs. I used the Beach Boys because they were a terrific a cappella group. Their harmonies were beautiful. There was and is a spirit of life and joy to their work. And there's a ton of movement in how their music flows. And all of this seemed to me to be very good for innervating and energizing both the dancers and the audience.

BIANCULLI: Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp speaking to Terry Gross last April. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last April with dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp. The PBS "American Masters" documentary about her called "Twyla Moves" still is streaming on pbs.org. And this weekend, three duet dances from her archives will be performed on stage in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: When you started your company - and this was in 1966 - the company was all women.

THARP: Right.

GROSS: And why did you want it to be all women?

THARP: Oh, (laughter) well, let's see here. I think we knew there was a bias. I think we knew there was a bias in the world of art across the boards, whether it was music, painting, sculpture, literature, dance. And we wanted to fortify ourselves in such a way that we could put forth what we thought was our strongest suit. And our strongest suit was a lot of technique and a lot of incredible ensemble work, but also strong individual voices.

And we didn't want the business of gender to get in the way of particularly the ladder, that I was a very different force from Big Rose or from Sara or from Theresa, that we all had singular qualities. And that was clearer if we were all women, then had a man been in the group, we would have been the women. He would - or they would have been the man. And that would have become the distinctive, defining characteristic rather than the individual qualities of each human being.

GROSS: And by having it be all women in your company, did it also help open the door to having different types of women? - because, you know, often in dance, like, the choreographer or the head of the company has a certain type that they want. And certainly, in ballet, you almost need to be physically a certain type. And you've even talked about, like, bringing somebody into your company who was rejected because they were too tall for the company they had auditioned for. So was this also a way of, like, opening the door to, like, different types of women, different body types, different heights?

THARP: Yeah, diversity. I've always - one of my favorite thematic mode (ph) is inclusive. In order to be inclusive, you need to have differentiation. So by having tall, short, classically trained, no classic training, great athlete, all of these various qualities would redefine and give a three-dimensional quality to the work that, obviously, is lacking if there is a body type that is featured throughout the ensemble. One understands that need of fungibility in professional companies because if one dancer goes out, they want to be able to put another one in as directly and efficiently as possible and, hopefully, in the same costume. You know, it's all the bottom line, right? To me, that was not what dancing was about. And it still isn't.

GROSS: Before you started doing your own work as a choreographer and dancer and you danced, like, in classes and in the Paul Taylor Company, how was your body regarded? You know, were you considered...

THARP: Oh, I have no idea.

GROSS: Yeah.

THARP: How would you define that? I mean, here's how I defined it. I looked in the mirror. I said, oh, OK. You can do that pretty well. And I looked in the mirror at everybody else. And I tried to be as objective as possible. And (laughter) I was in some very high-level classes. Cynthia Gregory would be in front of me. I'd say, OK, you can forget it about that fourth pirouette. You don't got it. So let's - plus, which she was - or Toni Lander. These were great ballerinas of my era who were in classes I was taking. And I saw that - what they did I was not qualified for. But I saw that I had another way of moving that was foreign to them and that they were awkward with. And that's where I chose to go.

GROSS: Could you define that a little bit more, what you had that they didn't?

THARP: I had a capacity for kind of kinetic movement that had been trained out of them in the classic technique, which is very elevated, very elongated, light, high, to be very fast. I had speed. I didn't have the - I was always very grounded, which is, of course, a characteristic of modern dance. But I had it naturally because of the way the body is constructed. So in order to be the best dancer I could be, it needed to be in a different style. I would be shortchanging myself to try to do - not just because of technique, but because of body construction - what they were better suited for.

GROSS: In 1973, Robert Joffrey of the Joffrey Ballet asked you to choreograph a piece for his company. You brought your dancers, too. So it was a mix of the ballet dancers and your company. What was your vision for combining ballet and your approach to dance?

THARP: Well, here's the thing. I had always felt that one dancer should be able to dance across the line. That is to say, when I started working in New York, you were either a modern dancer, or you were a ballet dancer. I thought that was ridiculous because I could be both a ballet dancer and a modern dancer. So shouldn't everybody else be able to do that? So with the ballet at the Joffrey, no, not everybody else could do it. First of all, we didn't work on point. Second of all, their women couldn't do falls the way we could. So we had different skill sets.

And I said, well, OK. We will need to augment one another. We'll take this element of movement. They'll take that element of movement. And we'll mix it together on stage, and we'll get a blend, which is what happened. When "Deuce Coupe" was revived fairly recently, dancers have changed. They now can dance across the line. And you actually can have one dancer who could do either side of the line, could work on point, could hit the deck. That was not possible then. Part of my point had to do with addressing the techniques of dancers. And that has changed.

GROSS: So you mentioned falls.

THARP: Yeah.

GROSS: And those are important in your choreography.

THARP: Yeah.

GROSS: Why was that important to you as a choreographer, to include falls?

THARP: Because it implies the fearlessness. And in truth, it is a kind of fearlessness. You're not afraid to fall. With classical dancers, they're not trained to fall. They fall, they're going to sprain something. They're going to damage their body. We could fall all kinds of different ways and not do any damage at all.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. There's a scene in the documentary. And I can't remember - is it with Baryshnikov that you're dancing and...

THARP: Yeah. I'm dropped.

GROSS: ...You're dropped (laughter).

THARP: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And you're stunned. But you're not hurt. Does that happen a lot?

THARP: I was actually hurt. But the thing is this...

GROSS: You were hurt?

THARP: Yeah. I didn't stop because we were performing in a couple of days. But it was - I had to have acupuncture for the only time in my life. But in all fairness, it has - he didn't drop me. I slipped. I was wearing those stupid rubber pants. And I simply slipped out of his grip. So it's unfair to say that he dropped me as though it was a shortcoming on his part. It wasn't.

GROSS: So what was your injury?

THARP: Neck - it was a neck injury. But I survived. Here we are.

BIANCULLI: Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp speaking to Terry Gross last April. This weekend, three duet dances from her archives will be performed on stage in New York City. After a break, we'll continue their conversation, and we'll also feature an interview with photographer Gordon Parks, who chronicled the Black experience for Life Magazine. Also, Justin Chang will review Jane Campion's new film, "The Power Of The Dog." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEACH BOYS' "LITTLE DEUCE COUPE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from last April with dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp. The PBS "American Masters" documentary about her is streaming on pbs.org. And this weekend, three duet dances from her archive will be performed on stage in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You wrote a dance for Mikhail Baryshnikov a couple of years after he defected to the West. And at the time, he was really, like, the most famous dancer. And you had - you say you had to teach him to slouch, which, of course, goes against ballet training. And he was, you know, classically trained in Russia. He was, you know, a superb, you know, ballet dancer. What is the importance of slouch in your dance? And what did it take to help him learn how to slouch, which probably really went against his instincts as a dancer?

THARP: No, because East Europeans always wanted to be cool, and being cool meant hanging down. So while he didn't quite know how to do it, it was certainly something that was seductive. And so, you know, you get your weight back a little on the heel. There were certain things like syncopated movements that he had not been trained in. And when he'd start to do it, it was like, you'd look at him and you - I mean, your heart goes out to him because here's this great dancer, and he's trying something that is that unfamiliar and uncomfortable. And he mastered it. He got it. He figured it out. He watched it. He felt it. He wanted to do it. He came here to dance differently.

GROSS: And what was the importance of slouching in...

THARP: Again, community. How many people sitting out there in your audience have the placement of a great classical dancer? So, of course, they're going to feel distance from a great classical dancer if that great classical dancer never, for a moment, kind of goes down and is a little bit like you and you can feel their rhythms. You can feel them breathing. Then they can go into that higher, upper sphere, and you can exalt with them. You're not intimidated by them. That's why it's a slouch.

GROSS: I was amazed to find out that your first major injury was when you were 69. Now, you mentioned that you were injured when you slipped out of Mikhail Baryshnikov's hands...

THARP: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Because you were wearing slippery pants. But it's amazing that you could do the kind of dancing that you've done over the years and not be injured. I mean, don't most dancers suffer, like, multiple injuries or whatever?

THARP: But most dancers - yeah, but most dancers aren't responsible for telling their body to do what it wants to do; most dancers have to do what other people tell their body to do. And they are not, most other people, familiar with the dancer's body, as they themselves are. So my body has been asked to do what's relatively appropriate for it to do, as it has changed, altered, aged, evolved, rather than having to continue to do the same roles it did at the age of 18.

GROSS: When you were injured at the age of 69, you broke a metatarsal in your foot. Was that life-changing? I mean, did you have to walk around with a boot? Or...

THARP: Yeah, the problem is this - and this I do share because it's very common - I should have stayed off it for about, oh, I don't know, two weeks maybe. And a metatarsal is not that big a deal, and it will heal. I couldn't. I was working. So, yes, I put on a boot, and I continued to work and found I was compensating more and more for that injury, and it became damaging to the whole skeleton. Ultimately, it did a lot of damage to the lower spine and to the hip sockets because I'd contorted the weight to carry it off that metatarsal. Don't do that. With an injury, until you can take the weight squarely in your body the way you're designed to do it, stay off the injury.

GROSS: In your memoir, "Keep It Moving," you wrote about all the stamina you had when you were in your 20s and how your movement and stamina changed over the decades. And you write, (reading) In your 20s, flexibility - yeah. Speed was a specialty. Power - actually not as great as it would become later. My coordination let me flip movement in space over, under, forward, back, torso going counter or parallel to the hips. Isolations were honed to where I could deliver movement off a single muscle. I was a big jumper. My falls were fearless. Balance was always my weakness, but you would never know that.

THARP: (Laughter).

GROSS: (Reading) Eating was anything any time (laughter).

So as you approach 80, where are you now in terms of what you feel like your body's capable of?

THARP: OK, that's a fair question. And the answer is, I'm not quite sure because this last year has been so compromised, both by the pandemic but also by the amount of work I've done because not only was it the PBS show and four projects, I also just finished a 40-minute ballet that was done on 17 dancers, double Zoom'd (ph) - I was rehearsing two studios simultaneously. I had four assistants. And that one was done in Germany, which meant a huge time shift, and was extraordinarily difficult. And I'm jet-lagged, or I'm getting over the jet lag.

So this last year with the pandemic and its disruptions in terms of, you know, routine discipline, just ordinary day-to-day activities, the body doesn't know itself at the moment. So I can't tell you what I can ask it to do until I refamiliarize myself. And I'm in the process of doing that. I have, because I've done a number of gigging kinds of works - I mean, whether it's a film which can take a year or a Broadway show, which also is another year - during those periods of time, I've let myself go because you don't have enough hours in the day to maintain the discipline the way I do when I'm not working on another project, and that project becomes primary.

When I commit to doing a project, I commit to doing it completely, not with left over in terms of time, that means whenever I've finished one of these big projects, I'm out of shape. So I've been in this position before - not at this age, but I know that it is a commitment to get back into shape. It's not going to happen on its own accord.

GROSS: Not everybody who's a dancer dances or choreographs into their 80s. I know you studied either with Merce Cunningham personally or at least in his company, and he's somebody who did dance into his 80s. I think I have the age right.

THARP: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if he inspired you at all to think, yeah, I can do that, too; it's been done.

THARP: Yes and no. Merce was in his 40s when I studied with him. And yes, I studied directly in his classes for four years. He was a great dancer. And I watched him teach. And he taught on one side. And he in his late 60s, early 70s became - the arthritis, as with Graham - she also had fierce arthritis, even worse than his. And one of my questions has always been, can I push it any further? Can I work responsibly, sensibly and with any kind of versatility, let's say, further than that? And we'll see. I don't know.

GROSS: How did you avoid the kind of arthritis that affected Graham and Cunningham?

THARP: Partially - yeah, partially - well, obviously, it's genetic. It also has to do with lifestyles. Diet has improved immeasurably. But it also has to do with the kind of physical disciplines. Graham worked most of her physical life within her own technique, as did Merce. And that means they limited their ranges of movement to what they were redefining as dance. I didn't do that.

I have figured anything is fair game if it moves. And I've also swapped out my training regimens a great deal. When I was in my 40s, I actually started working with a great boxing trainer named Teddy Atlas for about six months and had serious boxing training, which is great for stamina, for coordination, for speed - across the boards. It also takes an enormous amount of strength and power.

In my 50s, I started doing serious weight training and had a trainer here in the city who was the bench world champion. I continued myself to work on my own kinds of discipline, obviously, as anyone who wishes to maintain any kind of body have had some familiarity with yoga and practiced that myself. And I use bits and pieces of all these different kinds of trainings and techniques. I move it around.

GROSS: Twyla Tharp, it's just been great to talk with you. And I really want to thank you for doing this.

THARP: Thank you. It's my pleasure. And you obviously know what you're doing in this trade (laughter). And it's - you know, it's an honor to speak with you and be able to, you know, share in that experience that you bring. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Twyla Tharp speaking to Terry Gross last April. The recent PBS "American Masters" documentary about her called "Twyla Moves" is streaming on pbs.org. And three duet dances from her archive will be performed this weekend on stage in New York City. Coming up, an interview with photographer Gordon Parks, who chronicled the Black experience for Life Magazine. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.