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.