Kennedy Center Honors: Twyla Tharp

A look at the career of the dancer and choreographer, one of this year's Kennedy Center Honorees.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

NEW YORK Twyla Tharp may be tiny, gray-haired and nearing her seventh decade, but she wants it known she can still kick your behind. This is why she is banging out push-ups on the bare floor of her Upper West Side apartment as if she's the Marine and the drill sergeant rolled into one.

"I do at least 75 push-ups a day," Tharp says in her high-toned, William F. Buckley kind of voice. She stops after a quick couple dozen and moves onto stomach crunches, because you can never do enough stomach crunches in your lifetime. She tells you this while hanging by her knees from a chin-up bar, curling and uncurling herself like a worm on a hook.

She looks like bait, and you've bit. You walked right into this curious bit of theater, having asked, innocently enough, if she still works out -- Tharp is known as a fitness fanatic -- and in answer she offered up an abbreviated version of the two-hour-long part-ballet, part-Knute Rockne routine she puts herself through every morning.

You can only marvel at how Tharp, ever the choreographer, has arranged it so you're playing the audience to her star turn. Tumbling around barefoot on the floor in her jeans, singing out eight-count measures as she narrates her moves, she's a consummate showoff. Now, at 67, as much as in her dancing years.

But there's more at stake here than just impressing her interviewer. The 6 a.m. workouts enable Tharp to keep up with the dancers she's rehearsing seven hours a day, six days a week, for her new production. The Kennedy Center Honors, which she will receive tonight, fall in the midst of preparations for the show, an evening of dance to the music of Frank Sinatra. The crooner is a Tharp favorite; this will be her fourth work using his songs. She won't talk about her intentions for the piece, except to say that she's planning an invitation-only presentation this month, "within the industry," to gauge interest. It sounds as if she's aiming for another Broadway jukebox musical, to follow the success of her Tony-winning Billy Joel revue "Movin' Out," and perhaps to erase the stain of her more recent Bob Dylan disaster, "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

"You get in training, like for a race or for a fight," says Tharp, nestling her scant 100 pounds into a chair and tucking away strands of hair that have escaped from the clip at the back of her head. Wearing an austere black blouse, owlish tortoise-shell glasses and not a trace of makeup on her delicate, lightly careworn features, she projects firm self-awareness. What you see is what you get. Even her flamboyant bunions are on display -- she points them out as she pulls on socks.

"I do my training camp in advance, to get my stamina up, get my power up, get my strength up, and to give as much as I can to the dancers," she says. "There's no other way to do it."

Actually, there are other ways to do it: Merce Cunningham, who uses a wheelchair, works out patterns on a computer; other choreographers no longer in dancing form make do with words and gestures and assistants. But ceding any bit of her powers is simply not Tharp's way. She doesn't let herself off the hook, and she lets no one else off, either.

"When she's 92, she'll come up and knock your head off," predicts Emanuel Azenberg, executive producer of "Movin' Out," the "dance-ical" that bucked the Broadway norm, telling its Vietnam War-era story of five friends solely through nonstop powerhouse dancing and a rock band suspended above the stage. Tharp conceived, directed and choreographed it; it ran for three years. Azenberg was the person who worked most closely with Tharp, not always an easy thing. "Putting up the money was nothing," he says with a laugh. "I had to put up with Twyla."

"She's relentless. Totally dedicated to this world" of musical theater, he says. Yet though Tharp is demanding, Azenberg says, "her irascibility is modified by the humanity of what she puts on the stage."

Tharp's is not a story of tuning in to the muses. It's not about the glamour of show business, nor some kind of I-was-destined-for-greatness diva complex. Threaded through her life as one of the world's top choreographers, and the only woman among the ballet industry's premier living dancemakers (a small group that includes Mark Morris, Paul Taylor and Christopher Wheeldon), are the uncelebrated underpinnings of ceaseless work, discipline and rock-ribbed toughness.

In her 20s, fresh out of Barnard, Tharp studied with Martha Graham and Cunningham, and danced for a while in Taylor's company. When she began making her own dances in the mid-'60s, she says, she expected her work would be hated. So to avoid boos, she and her dancers took no curtain calls -- for five years. The curtain fell, lights came up, end of show.

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