Kennedy Center Honors: Twyla Tharp

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.

"That was the [screw you] time," Tharp says. "We don't give a [fig] if you like it, you're not paying [to produce it], and that's why you can not like it and we're still dancing tomorrow. Screw you!"

Then, in 1972, this little-known modern-dance choreographer was asked by the Joffrey Ballet to create a work -- a novel idea at the time, when the ballet and modern dance worlds sneered at each other and were loath to mix. The ballet dancers were skeptical, and some were openly hostile. Who was she, a young woman from the underfunded fringes of experimental dance, to walk into their elite realm and tell them what to do? So Tharp pushed back in the best way she knew.

"It was a good thing we were such good dancers, because that's how we made it happen. We just went into the studio and basically shamed them into doing it," Tharp says of the project, which merged her own small troupe of dancers with the Joffrey members. "We just challenged them. Because they didn't want to hear about it. They didn't want to do this. The classical dancers had a stronger pirouette, they had stronger feet, they had a more clearly defined, open line than we had. But we could get down. And that really intimidated them."

The work that resulted -- "Deuce Coupe," accompanied by Beach Boys songs and using graffiti artists brought in off the streets to create a spray-painted set -- was an instant hit. Intricately composed, and as visually dense as a snowstorm, it preached the gospel of getting along in a way that audiences could immediately absorb.

The stamina and focus of the entire cast, their differing techniques spotlighted and honored, amounted to a re-imagining of concert dance, as Warhol had done to visual art. (Balletgoers started bringing their binoculars to watch the overtly sexy modern dancers, Tharp notes with pride.) Perceptive, cheeky and stunningly new, "Deuce Coupe" thrust Tharp into the mainstream of dance.

Having received $5,000 from the Joffrey (which enabled Tharp to buy her light-filled apartment, with its gorgeous views), she went on to command twice that from American Ballet Theatre when, in 1975, it invited her to make a ballet for its new star, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Tharp's $10,000 proposal made the ballet officials gasp, as did her further demand: She would take on the job only after evaluating the celebrated Russian defector herself, in rehearsal. She got both her wishes -- along with a brief romance with the ballet star -- and the new work, "Push Comes to Shove," was another huge hit.

Tharp framed the entire cast -- and particularly Baryshnikov -- in an entirely unexpected way. Where audiences had come to expect his flung-open physicality, his phenomenal leaps and turns in the conventional ballets, in "Push" he was all tease, wearing a bowler and tight pants, swiveling his hips in an ecstasy of restrained cool. When she finally let him fly, it was in a swift, off-balance, rhythmically tricky way. "Push" also took shots at the company's repertoire, satirizing "Giselle" and "Swan Lake"; it was full of jokes as well as sly analysis. "Tharp has a logician's mind and a vaudevillian's heart," wrote Arlene Croce, reviewing the ballet in the New Yorker.

With "Push," Tharp became a star in her own right. Choreography for major films followed ("Hair," "Amadeus" and others), and forays on Broadway, along with works for her own company and other ballet troupes. Since "Push," her work came to define ABT's contemporary direction. This year, one of the four new works (amazing productivity, even for the workaholic Tharp) she has made for ballet companies was for ABT.

"She's an inveterate explorer and a huge risk-taker," says Sara Rudner, who danced with Tharp for 20 years. "I know of no one who put in the numbers of hours she did. We did it with her, but then we went home and she kept working."

Tharp credits her mother with instilling discipline in her, the eldest of four. Tharp was born in Indiana, named for the reigning Pig Princess at the local fair (who was a Twila; but with her sights on marquee appeal, Lecile Tharp changed the "i" to a "y"). The Tharps eventually moved to California to run a drive-in movie theater, and Tharp was shepherded around to piano, violin, baton-twirling and ballet lessons. Her greatest source of inspiration, though, was that outdoor cinema, where she discovered "the art of the '50s movies was in sustaining forever the moment before sex," she writes in her autobiography, aptly titled "Push Comes to Shove." "I sensed early that this perpetually suspended condition could be translated into art."

Also, there were the cartoons. "Walt Disney was a master of the human psychology," Tharp says. "His sense of timing, sense of speed. In a sense, those cartoons are like Rorschach tests. . . . There was an extraordinary imaginative and kind of primitive violence in them, that was subdued and pressed down." She sings that galloping Looney Tunes melody, clapping out the rhythm and waving her feet around from her seat. "And don't go any slower, 'cause if you do, uh-uh, people are going to be outta there. They're gettin' a hot dog."

Tharp's creative rise coincided with the dance boom of the 1970s and '80s, when audiences were hungry for new work and companies had money to spend on it. Today she is one of the most expensive choreographers in the field, with the price tag on a new work rumored to be more than $100,000, a number she wouldn't confirm. But what is pricey in the dance world represents a pittance in other areas, she points out -- sports, popular entertainment. And being tough on fees, she says, is part of getting respect.

"Well, it's an old story," Tharp says. "It's called independence. It begins with Mozart. Haydn wasn't liberated. Haydn accepted that he ate in the kitchen with the servants and he wore the livery. Mozart wanted to eat at the table. It's about having control over the work that you do and controlling what you will do, and that is part and parcel of having the wherewithal to do it."

You get the sense that the control and respect are more important to Tharp than actual wealth. Her apartment, while spacious by New York standards, is spartan. The walls are white and empty. The few pieces of furniture are simple, either black or white; the wood floors are bare and uncluttered (just the way a dancer likes them). Jumbled on a windowsill in the living room are her Tony, Emmys and other awards. Continue down the hallway, past a small dining nook and a stainless-steel kitchen that looks sterile enough for surgery, and you come to the inner sanctum: a small dance studio, immaculately empty but for a slim pillar in the center.

What is conspicuously on view in Tharp's home is not rare art or fabulous stuff, none of the usual trappings of money and fame, but empty space. That small studio is a monument. She owns no other rehearsal facility, has no school, no headquarters other than her apartment. And few interests outside of her work.

Night life? "I don't go out. I read. And then I'm in here at 6 in the morning," she says, referring to her workout. "This is what I've got to do."

Her apartment is also the office where an assistant, Ginger Montel, and Tharp's son, Jesse Huot (Tharp and his father divorced when he was a baby), help Tharp manage the licensing of her works. Tharp, who started actively licensing her dances only in the past few years, is eager to show off this arm of her business. No sooner are you out of the elevator than she's got her fingers through your belt loop, directing you to Montel's desk, where you are positioned in front of a large bulletin board neatly arrayed with lists of what Tharp work is being performed by what company where.

The next stop is what at first appears to be a closet. Tharp calls it the Box, a windowless space crowded with files and electronic equipment, where Huot, 37, a boyish redhead, sits before three computer screens. Tharp asks you to name one of her works. You blurt out "Baker's Dozen," a warmly lighthearted 1979 piece set to piano music by Willie "The Lion" Smith. Tharp gives you an approving smile, and Huot begins to scroll through a chronological list of her pieces, 135 in all.

As the titles fly by -- "Tank Dive," her first work from 1965; "In the Upper Room," her explosive, furiously jazzy work to commissioned music by Philip Glass -- you murmur that you'd like to change your pick. Tharp won't allow it. So Huot opens the "Baker's Dozen" file and you watch a few minutes of grainy black-and-white footage of a young Tharp improvising alone, years before the dance was completed. And you're pulled in; it's marvelous. She's so soft and spongy, so utterly immersed, her head flung back in the enjoyment of moving. You've never seen anyone move like that, loose as silk, fluid and boneless. Now you know why she smiled at this choice: She was pregnant with Huot at the time, and as we watch she notes that she was being "careful -- just a little."

In endless computer files, Tharp has digitized almost every step of her choreographic process since she was 29 and first began to tape herself making dances. "Dance has never had this," she says with obvious pride. These archives can be made available to those who want to perform her works and to study how she made them.

"I've been very, very concerned about: Is all the work that I've done going to be there when I'm not around?" she says. "I want to leave something for somebody else to refer to, in the same way I can refer to a composer or painter or writer and say, look what they've accomplished in their lifetime. Here's where they started and here's where they got to."

Where they got to is critical. Tharp has made a study of the great artists' careers. "Ultimately, the ones who I respect are the ones who, at the end, make the end count."

Ah, the end. Now we get to the heart of the matter. Why the exercises, why the maniacal work ethic. For as gracefully as she is aging, Tharp feels the process heavily. She has always choreographed by putting her own body in motion. What will happen when no amount of push-ups or crunches can stave off physical decline?

For the first time this afternoon, she doesn't have a ready answer. She laughs, looks over at her bookshelves. "I don't know. I don't count on that happening." After a pause: "I think that's one of the reasons why Matisse is such a favorite of mine. He was crippled and lying flat on the bed and he figured out a way to work.

"I mean, when Balanchine was in the hospital I went to see him, when he was at the end," she continues. "And I remember being so disappointed that he hadn't figured out a way to go on working." She goes on to extol the blunt, large-scale cutouts that Matisse created when he could no longer wield a brush. You're struck by the fact that not even the dying George Balanchine escapes Tharp's critical eye. But her observation isn't heartless. It's practical. Time must not be wasted.

Like Beethoven composing through deafness, like the infirm Matisse, Tharp will keep pushing and shoving -- dancers, boundaries, her own raging self -- until the lights finally go out. As at the start of her career, when she had no interest in curtain calls or in basking in what she'd accomplished, she won't do it at the end, either.

"So you keep going," Tharp says. "And I think, ultimately, that is what one wants to have to offer, is that you keep going."

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