NEW YORK — In her 50th year of making dances, Twyla Tharp has no patience for a retrospective. She has no patience for much of anything, to tell you the truth. You realize this the minute you enter her immaculate, spare apartment and she offers you a coaster and a friendly scold before you set your coffee down on her table.
You walked right into that, of course. Encountering Tharp is unfailingly humbling, and also stimulating, as if you’re entering a drama she’s directing and you’re not quite sure where to put yourself. Of course, she is happy to help you out with that. Tharp is always a few steps ahead of everyone else.
At 74, she runs on iron discipline and restless creativity. To mark her golden anniversary as a choreographer, Tharp has simply continued doing what she does: work.
One might reasonably expect an artist celebrating such a milestone to polish off a few masterworks — in her case, perhaps the edgy, contrasting tones of “In the Upper Room,” and maybe one or two of her stylish Sinatra pieces. Tharp has more than 160 dances from which to choose. But throwbacks don’t interest her. She has perfected her habits of creation, and productivity governs her days. As a result, a 10-city, 50th-anniversary tour will bring her and a dozen dancers — and two premieres — to the Kennedy Center Nov. 11-14.
Tharp looks a bit delicate as she settles into an armchair near the dance floor that takes up much of her Central Park West home. Her oversize glasses, white men’s dress shirt and loose jeans nearly swallow her wiry frame.
Sunlight pours through the balcony windows on this recent Saturday morning. But Tharp is having none of its tranquility. Energy buzzes around her like a halo. She gestures emphatically as she speaks, her bracelets clattering, and she tosses her head as if she’s declaiming to listeners in the upper balconies.
“Basically, I do what I do to make discovery and to learn and to be surprised by something,” she says, rapidly, her voice touched with impatience, even as she enthusiastically digresses into discussions of Balzac’s copious production and Schumann’s rediscovery of Bach.
“I’m still working. I’ve done two hours before you got here — working on myself, first thing every day.”
Her workout — stretches, push-ups, abdominals — is sacred. So is her three-egg-white breakfast. Nights, she stays in. Never goes out, except to her own shows. Exercise, work, read: a life of habit.
How does that strictness square with her legacy as a rule-breaker, the rebel who first slammed ballet and modern dance together, with Beach Boys music and graffiti art? She created that bomb, titled “Deuce Coupe,” for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973, when ballet and modern were seen as oil-and-water foes. Tharp exploded a dance divide forever. She went on to create dances for television, movies (“Amadeus,” “White Nights” and others), Broadway (most recently a Sinatra ode, “Come Fly Away”), and figure skating, in addition to numerous ballet companies.
“Anything that one does seriously requires practice, and practice is habit,” she says. “Rebellion, like creativity, doesn’t just fly off the walls. It’s pretty well studied and thought-through.
“Without the structure there’s sloppiness, carelessness, forgetfulness. Waste.” Tharp purses her lips, warming to her argument. “Don’t like waste. Waste is ungrateful.”
This pronouncement hangs in the air, ringing. Like steps fit to music, Tharp’s point strikes a perfect note with her crisp presence, her church-like living space, the Puritan work ethic she’s been describing. Waste not, want not.
“To waste anything is to be ungrateful for what we are given, which is enormous,” she continues. “Look at what we’ve been given in this country, in relation to so many. The time to work, the food to eat, having the opportunity to learn, to read.” She chides herself, briefly, for being imperfect and becoming lax at times. She remedies that with another duty, she says: writing out tomorrow’s schedule the day before.
“You have to keep monitoring yourself.”
At a recent rehearsal at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Tharp’s two new works seem to encapsulate her worldview. “Preludes and Fugues,” accompanied by Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” is orderly, with lots of open space and a sense of optimism. The dancers are lifted and borne triumphantly though space; they form circles and lock eyes with one another from across the room. One dancer, carried high by her partner, allows her gaze to rest on the view of open sky from the studio’s window. If that relaxed, pleasurable moment wasn’t choreographed, it was of a piece with the rest.
The second dance, “Yowzie,” with music from the Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein jazz recording “Viper’s Drag,” is messier, raucous. The dancers trip over one another drunkenly. It’s a coarse world, full of unsettling moments, slapsticky gags and confusion.
Tharp embraces both light and dark, always has. What’s important is structure. She gets up to show me how she’s documenting her work, so that after she’s gone, future dancers “won’t mess it up.” She pulls up a file from her computer archive and plays a video clip of a rehearsal from the 1980s — a snatch of the same choreography she’s using in “Preludes and Fugues,” and the split-screen format shows her current dancers rehearsing the same steps. Between the two an image of the piano score rolls by. With that, she says triumphantly, “nobody will be coming in early and nobody will be going out late. The rhythm will be the rhythm.”
She started using a video camera in the 1970s and has a deep archive of tapes. She calls this archive her “piano bench.” She borrowed the name from Beethoven, who composed on a theme “only after living with it for years.” Tharp doesn’t pressure herself to make a whole dance at once. She creates in scraps, from her own improvisations. She comes up with a few phrases and tapes them, shelves them, returns to them years later.
How does she remember all these fragments? “Physically,” she says. “I’m a very good dancer. Good dancers don’t forget, if the phrase makes sense. They remember it in the body. You don’t have to think of it. It just feels right.”
What can she advise those of us not nearly so disciplined? “Hope that you can approach the best that you can imagine, and accept that. It’s a gleaming possibility, and it’s worth doing your best for. If it’s not, then you don’t have a very good goal.”
Tharp knows she sounds old-fashioned. “I’m a simple Emersonian,” she says. “Very 19th-century American.” She attributes that, and her strict daily agenda, to her mother, who was Quaker. Tharp’s mother was born on a farm, no electricity, the sole luxury an upright piano. She taught herself to play, eventually studied at a conservatory. When Tharp was a toddler, her mother started her on piano lessons, and other arts followed, all with scheduled practice times.
A Quaker simplicity stays with her. Tharp seems steeped in a belief in human perfectibility through simple, focused means. You see this in her work; it illuminates “Preludes and Fugues” even in its stripped-down rehearsal state.
For Tharp, movement is essential to this perfectibility. She mentions visiting a Shaker community once and seeing an immense cradle in the infirmary. It was for elderly people.
“Shakers used to rock their dying to death.” she says. “To join them with the forces of the universe that moves. In the same ways that babies are rocked.” She speaks about how our own movement is governed by lunar force, the same one that pulls the tides.
“Movement is the basis of a great deal of who we are and how we can think and how we function,” she says. “And the fact that our culture has relegated it to the bottom of the heap is just amazing. Because it’s the basis of our existence. And to afford it the least possible respect is like, huh? Why are we cheating ourselves like this, folks?’
“I mean dance, yes,” she continues. It’s a marvelous point. But when asked for her views on why dance is less appreciated than other arts, Tharp grows extra cranky.
“I don’t go there. I attempt to deal with it in my own way. I don’t have time to dig that rock up and get it behind me; I move around it, under it, through it.” She is pressed. Finally she says: “Start with people being out of touch with their own bodies. Those who are not are capable of wanting to see dance, and capable of getting there. Those who are letting themselves go to pot and seed and rot, they’re not going to get it. Don’t want to be troubled by that.
“What’s easy about feeling terrible?” she adds. Then she softens. “It’s simply because they haven’t been fortunate enough to have my mother.”
Tharp announces that she has time for one more question, because she has to get to rehearsal, and she’s not kidding. She’s getting her shoes on as the last question comes. She has won just about every award a choreographer can win — among them two Emmys, a Tony, a Kennedy Center Honor, a MacArthur “genius” grant. Fifty years, lots of dancers, millions of steps saved on her computer. What can she still find that inspires her?
“Oh, lots. Things do not become uninspiring. In the church, the more you work doesn’t mean the lesser God is. It doesn’t reduce the powers.” She pauses, lets that point hang for a moment.
You think back to her firm instruction on the enormousness of gifts that we are privileged to receive. One of these is boundless possibility, accessible and nourishing. If you work hard enough.
“There’s no need to fear,” Tharp says, “that suddenly one has learned it all.”
The Twyla Tharp 50th-anniversary tour, featuring “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie,” comes to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater Nov. 11-14, with shows at 7:30 p.m. each night, in addition to a 1:30 p.m. show on Saturday. Tickets, $34-$65. For information, call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.