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Creativity stretched to its fullest limits

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life; Twyla Tharp;Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $25

October 15, 2003|Kai Maristed | Special to The Times

Some words are devilishly hard to pin down. Terms such as "love," "beauty" or the perennially debated "pornographic" can seem like only partially successful linguistic attempts to capture the ineffable.

"Creative" is one that gives even the Oxford English Dictionary a run for its money. Definition A: "Having the quality of creating, given to creating; of or pertaining to creation; originative" is a start. Definition B takes more of a leap: "Spec[ifically] of literature and art, thus also of a writer or artist: inventive ... imaginative; exhibiting imagination as well as intellect, and thus differentiated from the merely critical, academic ... in literary or artistic production...." This could serve as a pretty accurate characterization of one of America's most versatile, popular and celebrated choreographers, an artist whose range of work escapes all pigeon-holing: Twyla Tharp.

At the sustained height of her public success -- currently with the Broadway dance hit "Moving Out," set to the music of Billy Joel -- Tharp has chosen to step outside her metier and share with readers her thoughts on what got her to this place, and what has similarly enabled other artists to excel in their work. Exhibiting imagination as well as intellect, with good dollops of generosity of spirit as well as curiosity about her own karma thrown in, she has written an engagingly personal, down-to-earth how-to book for the aspiring artist.

"I promise you that the text will not be littered with dance jargon," she writes in "The Creative Habit : Learn It and Use It for Life." Integral to Tharp's project is her belief in the validity of generalization. Whether people are working at literature, music, the performing or visual arts, or are "looking for a new way to close a sale," or, say as engineers, "trying to solve a problem," in her view, they all require the same basic stuff of creativity, which, moreover, can be nurtured by a common method.

This may strike some as a paradox. But according to Tharp, specific habits -- or, to expand the notion, specific behaviors involving repetition, discipline, ritual, rules, trained reflex -- will prepare the ground of the psyche so well that the seed of creativity -- whatever it is -- can't help but root and expand there. Significantly, toward the book's end she remarks that "attaching a name to the work is always the last thing I do. It's a signal to myself that I finally understand it."

"The Creative Habit" is impressively well-organized. Tharp draws not only on a lifetime of creative collaboration with luminaries such as Jerome Robbins, Richard Avedon and Mike Nichols, but also on extensive experience teaching "creativity" workshops at colleges around the country. Eleven topical chapters, running from preparation for work through the uses of memory, generation of raw ideas, skill development, how to embrace failure and, finally, the arc of an oeuvre, contain and sandwich 31 practical exercises. Some take the form of questionnaires ("Your Creative Autobiography"), but be warned -- they are not of the easily dashed-off, back-of-the-magazine variety, but require significant time and mental effort. Others are, as one might expect of a dancer, physical in nature -- for example, the egg exercise is an experiment in body shape and metaphor. Still others run more along the line of advice on restructuring one's life. She encourages the elimination of distractions such as newspapers, TV or, more radically, mirrors or speech, to read "archeologically" and to build a "validation team" of trusted and honest critical friends.

Does the method work? A good bet is that it will serve to inspire and kick-start those setting out on their path, regardless of age, and prove less relevant to artists well into the development of their own customs and sources. Some may find her emphasis on discipline all around daunting -- she herself rises at 5:30 a.m., works out in a gym for two hours, breakfasts on egg whites and then, after the day's work, turns in at a monkish hour. (But what about those late premiere nights, I wondered?) In fact, much of the book's real charm lies in its quality of gradual self-revelation -- as if Tharp had sketched her own tentative, questing artistic biography here between the brisk lines of a how-to. There is the frequent homage to her mother's influence and enthusiasm, the vignettes of a young Twyla struggling (and failing) to "have it all," and her knowledgeable yet ever wide-eyed admiration of Beethoven, Rembrandt, Balanchine.

In the long run, for all the effort devoted to finding a "general law of creativity," the readers who will devour this book again and again are likely to be the young dance-makers: the apprentice composers, performers and choreographers who will make for us the next new thing.

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