Twyla Tharp has been a choreographer and dancer for 50 years. She’s won a Tony, two Emmy’s, been a Kennedy Center Honoree and a MacArthur Fellow. For her golden anniversary, she brings a pair of new works to Dallas.
In April of 1965, Twyla Tharp danced her first work, using Petula Clark’s popular song “Downtown.” The dance was called “Tank Dive” and premiered at Hunter College. This week, she told a “Think’s” Krys Boyd it lasted all of about 4 and a half minutes.
“…because I figured that’s all I knew about a beginning a middle and an end,” Tharp said. “And I could get it into that period of time. So if you were late you kind of missed the whole thing.”
Fourteen people showed, said Tharp, but added that was ok, because she knew then she could do it. She’s since created hundreds of dances over five decades, presenting them on the dance stage, Broadway theaters, for television and film. Tonight, she presents not one, but two premieres. Tharp’s 74. She does not believe in slowing down.
“The point of work, to me, is doing more work,” Tharp said. “There’s always time for the past and I value the past. Not only my past, but others’ pasts. But the future has lots of room for the past. The present has only now.”
And for now, Tharp says, her two new works portray the world as it ought to be, and the world as it is. The first piece is called “Preludes and Fugues.” To music of J.S. Bach, Tharp pays tribute to dance giants she learned from: Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine. She says it presents her take on equality, justice, balance…
“People have an overview of tolerance, and diversity does not separate. It’s possible to congregate as a diverse lot,” explained Tharp. “That would be the world as it ought to be. The world as it is had best be approached with humor.”
And so the second new work, “Yowzie,” is danced to jazz, with funny interactions between couples and slapstick moves inspired by Tharp’s beloved silent film comedies.
As she helped pioneer the use of pop, rock and jazz music in serious dances, she’s also always blended modern and classical ballet moves in her work. That used to shock the dance world, but no more. Dancer John Selya, who matured with the classical American Ballet Theater, joined Tharp sixteen years ago. He’ll dance tonight.
“I love being a ballet dancer but sometimes I disagree with how marginalized it is,” Selya says. “People have a certain idea of it. And if it goes out of the boundaries, they reject it. You know incorporating pop music, I think she just, you know, it grows the audience.”
That growing audience also brings with it a risk at a premiere like this. What if they don’t like it? Charles Santos is also aware of the upside. He runs TITAS, the Dallas presenter. It’s one of five groups, including the Kennedy Center and the Joyce Theater, that commissioned the works.
“Pieces generally carry the names of the people who helped commission it, and it usually says where it was premiered,” Santos says. “That’s something we want to happen for Dallas and for TITAS - to know that we’re investing in artists and having work created.”
At the same time, Santos says he and other organizations know Tharp and have faith in her.
“And so it was a no-brainer that we were going to do this.”