Twyla Tharp. Photo: Gjon Mili
Twyla Tharp may have more popular breadth than any of her choreographer peers, though it’s hard to say how she is best known. It could be for her Broadway shows, such as Movin’ Out, for which she won a Tony Award; for the films she’s choreographed, including White Nights; or for the three books she has authored. Or because she has embraced all types of music, from classical to chart-topping pop. What is certain is that she has never compromised on concept, technique, or principle throughout her prolific career.
In her early work from the 1960s, Tharp disassembled, analyzed, and re-created conventional jazz and modern movement, turning it inside out, running it in retrograde. She crafted roiling, cursive phrases that flowed seamlessly or darted unpredictably. It was too technical to be called strictly postmodern, despite the loopy, relaxed demeanor and the dollops of pedestrian movement.
In the 1970s, she began working with Mikhail Baryshnikov—then a guest principal with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT)—who, with a similar compact build, mop of hair, and physical genius, became a male doppelgänger for Tharp. On him, she could satisfactorily combine jazzy, pelvis-swiveling movement with bravura ballet, topped off with his irresistible charisma. She choreographed Push Comes to Shove, featuring Baryshnikov, for ABT in 1976, and began choreographing more with ballet.
In addition to making inroads into opera houses, Tharp ventured onto Broadway in 1981 with The Catherine Wheel, a collaboration with musician David Byrne. The explosive culminating segment, “The Golden Section,” is today performed as a self-contained piece by marquee companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and is considered a “Mt. Everest” of dance, something to be conquered rather than simply performed. Her company premiered In the Upper Room, to David Byrne’s music, in 1986. Combining brisk ballet with what resemble aerobic exercises, it remains a litmus test of top ballet companies’ technical and adaptive capabilities. The Catherine Wheel and In the Upper Room were performed in 1987 during a monthlong run at BAM, along with many other Tharp works, including classics such as Baker’s Dozen and Nine Sinatra Songs. Tharp has pushed the definition of musical theater with her Broadway paeans to Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, and Frank Sinatra, letting the oft-familiar music fill ears while her choreography visually tells the story, eliminating spoken text’s primacy.
Toward the end of ABT’s rendition of Upper Room, exhaustion sets in, but the dancers tap into deep reserves of skill, muscle memory, and will, and soldier on to a rousing finale. The same might be said of Tharp throughout her work’s journey.
Reprinted from BAM: The Complete Works. Click here for more information on the book and here to purchase a copy.