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'Howling Near Heaven:
Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance'

by Marcia B. Siegel

reviewed by Leland Windreich

July 2006

Choreographer Twyla Tharp and critic Marcia Siegel began their respective careers in the late 1960s at the legendary Judson Church programs in New York City. Tharp performed her unconventional new dance works in the characteristically disheveled Judson attire, and Siegel wrote terse critiques of what she saw. Both shared the common condition of poverty. Siegel got five dollars a pop for her writings in fringe publications, and Tharp made no money but got a good deal of essential attention. No one seems better qualified to assess Tharp’s career, therefore, than Siegel, who went on to become one of the most respected dance critics, authors and academics in America and who continues to this day to observe and report on the work of a dance-maker who has become, almost accidentally, an international celebrity.

Siegel’s book is less a biography than a chronicle of a career. Tharp’s beginnings, her private life and her extravagant personality are revealed in the dancer’s autobiography, “Push Comes to Shove” (Bantam Books, 1992). This twice-written account (the first with a collaborator was scuttled) offers a vivid presentation of the experience and issues that motivated the dancer and some flamboyant commentaries on her associations and indiscretions. Her point of view often comes across as egocentric, and her accounts of situations that present her as socially inept do not make her an endearing nor particularly sympathetic subject. As a writer, Tharp tends to put her foot in her month as frequently as she places it on stage. It does help, however, to have a clear picture of the woman before tackling Siegel’s study of her work.

Siegel deals with the warts in the context of Tharp’s exposition of the creative processes but avoids lingering on the potentially lurid. In offering a detailed account of Tharp’s dances and the many transitions in her artistic development, Siegel leaves no stone unturned. Siegel interviewed all of Tharp’s dancers for their recall and assessment of the works in which they performed, and she surveyed the vast body of written critiques that appeared in the American press over a 40-year period. She claims to have personally seen every dance that Tharp created. Her recall of each is vivid, and the book’s stature exists in the brilliant word-pictures of the dances that she offers generously throughout the text.

As a beginning dance-maker, Tharp ignored the expectations of audiences and worked to please herself, establishing a style that incorporated the miscellany of her life’s experience. As a child she had been transported to classes in nearly every field of the performing arts by an excessively ambitious mother, who logged thousands of miles in her car to afford her daughter training in dancing (ballet, tap, jazz, baton twirling) as well as education in shorthand and foreign languages. Her early dances incorporated motifs reflecting these various exposures, and her life’s work seems to have been an overachiever’s struggle to arrive at a discernable amalgamation of all her influences. It was the innocence that prevailed in her work, coupled with the driving professionalism that propelled it, that endeared her to those who became champions of her creations.

Tharp went from small ensemble dances for three women to large-scale performance works involving the public offered in parks and outdoor areas. Then, and in later years when she was established in the theatre, she had both admirers and detractors. The latter faction invariably found her work shapeless and immature, while those supporting her applauded and encouraged her daring. Siegel’s study reveals that even in her most iconoclastic works she was gaining the kind of reputation that attracted a curious public, and that most of her career was spent in a continuous cycle of bookings and tours, some taking her to far shores, where she found supportive audiences despite her ongoing indifference to their needs.

A contract with the Robert Joffrey Ballet made it essential for her to create a work in a proscenium setting, and the success of it and other creations for ballet companies opened doors to worlds she had not intended to conquer. In time, she was choreographing dances for major commercial motion pictures (“Hair,” “Amadeus,” “Ragtime”), experimenting with techniques for dancing on television, and creating large-scale ballets for such reputable institutions as American Ballet Theatre, the Martha Graham Company, Great Britain’s Royal Ballet, and the Paris Opera Ballet. In recent years she choreographed and directed several popular Broadway shows.

In her documentation of Tharp’s major works, particularly those of the popular theatre, Siegel lays bare the ambiguity in the character of an artist who has never achieved a full sense of comfort in her work. Tharp’s critics, even the most supportive, continue to find discrepancies in her materials and inconsistencies in her statements. Amalgamation often negates any attempt to achieve style. Some of her large scale dramatic works, such as “The Catherine Wheel” are choked with unclear philosophic considerations.

In her pieces for ballet companies, Tharp has rarely created a lasting theatrical achievement. Siegel suggests that her insensitivity to the music she chooses and her inability to be guided by its statement may be one issue. Another is her origins in a medium that celebrated process over product and that advocated the making of dances destined to expire after performance. (Siegel’s first anthology of her critical writings is not called “At the Vanishing Point” for nothing). In reading critical responses to most of Tharp’s major creations one is likely to conclude that she has never really found her way, and that a successful work may still be followed by a dismal failure.

Tharp’s business life is presented as equally erratic, as she impulsively rejects what appear to be at least two sound and secure offers of housing for her life’s work and opts for a nomadic existence. Stops and starts in her various production projects, the dissolution and reassembly of her groups as crises arise, and the frequent stresses produced by spreading her resources over too many media concurrently seem characteristic of this troubled but gifted artist who has nonetheless made a permanent place for herself in American dance history.

Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance. By Marcia B. Siegel. St. Martin's Press, 2006. 336 pages. ISBN: 0312232942

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