A pre-eminent director and choreographer, 75-year-old Twyla Tharp has long been a dominant figure in international modern dance.
Her influential work includes 129 dances, 12 television specials, six feature films, four Broadway shows, four full-length ballets and two figure-skating routines.
She’s received an Emmy, two Tonys, the National Medal of Arts, the Jerome Robbins Prize and numerous other awards. In 1973, Tharp choreographed the Beach Boys’ “Deuce Coupe” for the Joffrey Ballet in what is now considered the first ballet to merge popular and classical elements. Tharp created the Broadway dance musical “Movin’ Out” set to the music of Billy Joel and has also choreographed to the music of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and songs recorded by Frank Sinatra.
She has written three books, including the 1992 autobiography “Push Comes to Shove” and is at work on another memoir. She brings her company Twyla Tharp Dance to the Harris Center for a retrospective program that includes “Country Dances,” from 1976; “Beethoven Opus 130” which premiered in 2016 and “Brahms Paganini,” which premiered in 1980. She spoke on the phone from her New York office.
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Q: Matthew Dibble has been a prominent dancer in your company for a while now. Could we talk about what he brings to the artistic collaboration with you?
A: Matt took the entire curriculum at White Lodge, which is the Royal Ballet’s (of Great Britain) training facility. He started when he was 10 … and he went into the company of the Royal Ballet when he was 18, and I happened to be there that season writing a work, and it was clear to me that this kid was really talented. I gave him more dancing than a novice in the chorus should be having, according to everybody else at the RB. Not too long after that, he came to America wanting to be in “Movin’ Out.”
He’s pretty much danced with me since then. Matt is a very, very good actor. It partially comes with the territory with the British dancers. … He’s really good with technique … and he has both the respect for the traditional training and really great dancer’s ability to go “Yeah, OK, we know how to do that – now let’s try something else.”
Q: How does the idea of narrative work in your choreography?
A: Something like “Movin’ Out” … utilized Billy (Joel’s) lyrics to tell the story, and it had a coherent through-line from beginning to middle and end because the lyrics supported the characters and the action onstage. That’s one example of how lyrics can function.
Another is more an emotional kind of conditioning, for example, “Nine Sinatra Songs,” which is the series of Frank’s recordings. The relationships are very, very clearly colored by the narrative, but it’s not telling the story of the narrative. The songs are paced in such a way that they go from “Strangers,” … which is essentially fascination, to “My Way,” which would seem to be self-centered – and in some sense it is – but not the way we use it. By then it’s clear that “My Way” is our way, and it supports a much broader kind of definition encompassing what relationships can accomplish. So that’s a different use for narrative.
Q: Did you have a revelation about becoming an artist when you were younger, or is it the idea just developed over time and at a certain point you realized “I’m immersed in dance; this is who I am?”
A: I’m working now on a book which is called “The Earned Life” and the opening chapter deals with the first part of your question, it’s called “The Pledge.”
Are you aware that I grew up in San Bernardino, Calif.? Are you aware I grew up working in the Foothill Drive-In Theatre? which my parents owned? Well, my mother was a disciplinarian, and I was privileged with many, many, many early studies. The relevant one is a woman called Beatrice Collenette who lived in Pasadena. My mother drove me three times a week for about five years from San Bernardino to Pasadena in order for me to study with (influential Russian ballerina Anna) Pavlova’s protégé. My mother felt it was worth it. If I was going to study dance, that I study with the best instruction she could find in Southern California. … I think we could say from a very early age I understood that what I was doing was serious.
Twyla Tharp Dance 50th Anniversary Tour
When: Thursday, Oct 20, 2016, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Harris Center for the Arts, 10 College Parkway, Folsom
Cost: $39- $65, Premium $75 (Students with ID $25)