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Still Getting Her Kicks

Dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp returns to her roots to put together an energetic young company for a two-year tour of original performances.

September 22, 1996|Jordan Levin | Jordan Levin is a freelance writer based in Miami

One day back in 1967, Twyla Tharp and her dancers were rehearsing at Judson Church, then New York's high temple of the downtown avant-garde, when a janitor indignantly asked how they could dance on a Sunday. Tharp, ever righteous in the cause of art, replied by asking how dare he disturb a bunch of broads doing God's work?

Almost 30 years later, plowing through a giant steak at a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Tharp has lost none of her belief that dancing is divine work, as irresistible and relentless a calling as any saint's. "Bottom line," says Tharp, now one of the best-known choreographers of this century, "there's nothing else [dancers] can do."

"The reason I became a dancer is because I asked myself at a certain point, 'What do you do best?' And I said, 'Dance.' And then I said, 'Well, that's a stupid choice to make, there's no career to be made in dance, this is really foolish.' And I said, 'Too bad, this is what I do best, and this is what I'm going to do.' Because in a way I owe it, to whatever, whomever, wherever I come from, to do that. The commitment is ever absolute. And that is what faith is about."

Her own words give her pause. She sits back. "That was a good one. I like that. Because it's true. It's also very clear. And unequivocal. Which is what good dancing is."

Starting this month, Tharp is taking her faith and her latest show on the road, in the form of a brand-new, young 13-member troupe and three new pieces. "Tharp!" as the project is called, had its world premiere in Berkeley last Friday and comes to the Wiltern Theatre on Friday and Saturday in the kickoff of a projected two-year national and international tour. It is a kind of choreographic road trip through the American psyche and through the current state of the artist's own bullheaded and passionately creative self.

"Tharp!" also marks a return to the choreographer's roots. For the last eight years, she has been working primarily with ballet companies, including such major classical institutions as American Ballet Theater, England's Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. But "Tharp!" is essentially modern. There are no toe shoes (Tharp jokingly says they couldn't afford them), and it is full of quirkily popping limbs and loose lines, an extension of the movement language she pioneered with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company starting in 1965. It is also a foray back into the role of troupe leader, which she abandoned along with her company in 1988, claiming that to maintain the ensemble required her to spend too much time as a CEO and too little as an artist.

Still, this is a return on Tharp's own terms. The company is not permanent; in fact, it is set up to disband in two years. It's not dependent on the grants and donations that keep most dance troupes alive; the idea is that it will be self-sustaining, that it will pay its own way through ticket sales. None of the dancers are on union contracts, there are no star salaries, rehearsal space was rented for a limited period, and overhead and administrative costs were generally kept to the minimum needed to produce the project.

Given the ongoing decreases in arts funding and what she calls the financial impossibility of running a full-time company, Tharp sees a project like this as a practical alternative. "The fact that this is a completely earned-income company, I think, is something very important to be doing in the dance world right now," she says. She shrugs off questions of resentment. "Dance has never been a particularly easy life, and everybody knows that."

The act of reinvention, Tharp says, is a good thing. "There's a kind of idealism about [this project]. Optimism with some experience behind it is much more energizing than plain old experience with a certain degree of cynicism. I can see now that a great deal can be done. You just gotta do it."


At a run-through at City Center, a midtown Manhattan theater that is one of New York's major dance venues, Tharp seems relaxed and in good spirits. The company is in the final stages of rehearsal, and her boyfriend, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, is here today visiting from Washington, D.C. As she goes over design sketches with designer Santo Loquasto, who is doing backdrops for one piece, and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton--both trusted collaborators who have worked with her for more than 20 years--she jokes affectionately and sarcastically.

"Tacky, tacky, tacky, bless your heart," she says to Loquasto over his choice of a particularly shrill shade of orange. She and Shelley Washington, a longtime member of her former company who now serves as her rehearsal mistress and general right-hand woman, make a big to-do teasing Wieseltier: How can he eat a hot dog without sauerkraut? And after the first piece, Tharp saunters up to him, for all the world like a flirtatious teenager, chirping, "Hi honey, did you like it better this time?"

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