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'Thoroughly Modern Twyla'
A Conversation With Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp in Residence at Pacific Northwest Ballet

by Dean Speer

Published November 2008

Following the Boy Scout Motto “Be Prepared” takes a lot of discipline – and thought.  It’s a mantra I try to follow, sometimes more successfully than others.  Never the less, I knew that my allotted 30 minutes with the contemporary choreographic icon Twyla Tharp needed to be disciplined to achieve maximum benefit for both of us.  To make it fun and not an unsufferable torture for its subject, I tried to come up with some topics and questions that would be conversation-starters and get us talking more in-depth.

I arrived early for my scheduled appointment and took the time to acclimate – and to soak up the highly-charged atmosphere at PNB’s rehearsal headquarters.  Chatting with one of my favorite dancers who asked why I was there, I reported that I was there to interview ‘she.’  Smiling, this person understood the reference right away and said that I’d be in for an interesting session.

Seeing that my time was near, I took a deep breath and grabbed my packet – notepaper, questions, and tape recorder – and made a beeline to where the Media Relations person was coming out to usher me into PNB’s library, where the interviews [she was giving several in 30 minute blocks] were to be held.  A colleague was just coming out – shaking her head and muttering to me how it was going to take hours to transcribe the interview, also on tape. [We all had been alerted that Ms. Tharp speaks quickly.]

Seated erect and alert at one of the reading tables, and dressed in what’s become her trademark work-a-day rehearsal outfit of a white long-sleeved blouse tied in the front above denims and white sneakers, Tharp initially gives the impression of an alert librarian.  But make no mistake, this is not your average bibliophile.

By way of introduction, I told her that we nearly met a couple of years ago at the Joffrey Ballet headquarters in Chicago when we sat four chairs away from each other while we both watched their first Company Class of the season.  I was there at the invitation of one of the then ballet masters to see the Joffrey’s new digs and she was there to audition and cast “Deuce Coupe” that William Whitener was soon to set.  I indicated we almost got to say hello, but I was too excited and just slightly nervous.

Also, had she heard the anecdotal story of how the person to whom Martha Graham tried to leave all of her dances to, but who was not a dancer himself, tried to offer comments about how for the piece being rehearsed right then was “Not what Martha wanted!” and then started waving his arms around, trying to, presumably demonstrate what she did want, only to be told by a member of the rehearsal staff, “Ron, that’s not Martha’s piece, it’s Twyla’s!”?  She had heard this, and thought it amusing.  Twyla further observed that she wishes that she herself had “written” Martha’s famous “Primitive Mysteries” dance.

Offering congratulations on being celebrated with a Kennedy Center Honor [this turned out to be a conversation non-starter (“Thank you.”)], we launched into the heart of our conversation.

My first substantive question was an attempt to get her to characterize her work, by talking about the “buzz”generated by her residency.  A lot of advance publicity had been given to her Seattle residency and to the creation of the new works for PNB.  The question was framed:  We could anticipate this not only drawing in people to see her work, but also those who might be coming to see the ballet for the first time.  What advice might she have for the first-time viewer – to her work and to dance?

Her response was that “first-time viewers should be open minded and to allow for some surprises – to enjoy a new experience.”  When asked to describe her work, instead of summarizing its characteristics, she summarized her choreographic oeuvre in a nutshell, letting them fall into three categories – early works where she “just wanted to show pieces and had no expectations of even having an audience;” creations for her company; and her work today.

The process of making artistic decisions can be quite interesting, and in response to my query about why she chose this music [Brahms’ Opus 111] over the originally announced Brahms symphony, she replied that she “felt it was a more mature, deeper and better composition.”  She also offered that she “had originally planned to use only three of the four movements, but after staging three, she saw that her work was ‘unbalanced’ and expanded it to include all four sections.”

Knowing she is quite “into” the creative process, we tried to delve into just how she creates her own material – how she comes up with her movement motifs and ideas.  Ms. Tharp reported that she “has video archives going back to 1968 that have recorded [her] studio experiments.”  She culls from these, and in the case of PNB’s two new pieces, worked out the extended “parts” on Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, who helped her teach the parts to the dancers.  For the Brahms, she had begun with a certain number of prescribed parts but expanded that number after arriving and working with the PNB dancers, whom she “has found very good to work with – disciplined and open to working in fresh ways.”

We talked about creativity a little bit more and how she would define it.  She likened creativity “to keeping us all sane,” and agreed that “even an e-mail about the most routine thing could be lively.”

As our all too-short time together drew to a close, I asked her where she thought dance might be going in the future.  She quickly replied that it’s “...tied to the AIG!” [American International Group, Inc.; at the time of our interview, the U.S. economy was quickly going downhill and was in crisis.] While “dance always continues, it is dependent on funding.”

A side observation: While watching Tharp conduct an open rehearsal of “Afternoon Ball,” it was most interesting to me that she sat up ramrod straight on a stool and while note-taking, never took her eyes off of the dancers, but wrote without looking at her pad.  Yet when it came time to give the dancers notes, she was clearly able to read and interpret her comments.  She had many positive things to relay to the dancers, noting that one section in particular was “quite strong” and successful, also working with them on myriad details, refining these to performance level.

Twyla Tharp has become, perhaps through no fault of her own, an American institution [those who perceive themselves and their work to be at the cutting edge, tend to not want to be associated with such conservative words as “institutions”], and PNB was fortunate to have her zesty and spirited presence as it concluded its Summer rehearsals and kicked off its Fall performance season.


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