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If you like Twyla Tharp's story, you might also like:
Suzanne Farrell,
Harold Prince,
Trevor Nunn,
Lloyd Richards
and Julie Taymor

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Twyla Tharp in the Achievement Curriculum section:
From Dance to Drama

Related Links:
Twyla Tharp's Web Site
New York Times
American Ballet Theatre

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Twyla Tharp
Twyla Tharp
Profile of Twyla Tharp Biography of Twyla Tharp Interview with Twyla Tharp Twyla Tharp Photo Gallery

Twyla Tharp Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Dancer and Choreographer

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  Twyla Tharp

How would you define modern dance?

Twyla Tharp: First of all, I would have to challenge the term, modern dance. I don't really use that in relation to my work. I simply think of it as dancing. I think of it as moving. I think of it was involving at least as much a ballet technique as the so-called traditional modern dance technique. A lot of the issue was evolving a technique that we felt we owned. We went back to the beginning building blocks. We went back to very simple things, like walking, running, skipping, things that belong to everybody. That are not called modern dance, that are not claimed by the ballet. From there we began to see certain parallels. Then it was no big deal to as we say, "goose it up a notch." We could kick it up back to where the stylization had been, because we knew where it came from. But we took nothing for granted in the beginning.

What turns you on so much about dance?

Twyla Tharp: It's not so much about being turned on. It's about being not turned off. I think it's something everybody, not just dancers, has to do on a daily basis, or else they're going to be in trouble. Because not only are they physically out of shape, which most people are, but they don't know how to gauge their foundation. They don't know their bottom line. That comes from physical work.

I don't think politicians should be allowed into power who are not familiar with their bodies, because that's where our bottom line is. And I know that they would make totally different decisions if they felt responsible simply for their own bodies, for starters, for example. I think that anybody who wants to challenge their mind to operate -- any artists, any writer, any economist, any entrepreneur who wants their mind to function at a peak knows they have to work physically at something, whatever, on a daily basis. It is a necessary part of the human machine. We're a machine and we have to be worked in the same way we have to be fed. So it's not a question of being turned on, it's a question of respecting a necessity.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

It sounds like your mother had a lot of ambition for you.

Twyla Tharp: My mother was a dominant force in my life. She had a very specific idea about education, which was: you should know everything about everything. It was quite simple. There was no exclusivity, and there really was no judgment, which is a good thing for someone who still thinks of themselves as a very basic American. I think that I had a very eclectic and, in a way, a very democratic education. I'm grateful for that.

I began ear training when I was about six months old. My mother was a concert pianist, and she started all of her children with music before they were a year old. Then she began to see that I had a musical gift, and that I should be tutored outside the house, because she didn't want it to become too much an amateur situation. She wanted it to be objectified. So I started formal piano training when I was four. From there I had little violas, and I had dancing lessons of every sort and description, and painting lessons. German wasn't taught in the high school, so I had German. And shorthand, in case I ever needed to be a secretary or, if I didn't need to be a secretary, at least when I went to college I would be able to take all my lectures down verbatim, and then go back and see what the professor had said. That's the downside of my mother's education because she made no selections, and she made it seem as though one had a lifetime to do that. That's no true. A young person has to start making decisions for themselves at a much earlier age than an overbearing parent allows one. I think that in combination with the degree to which a childhood and the ability to socialize was taken away, was eradicated from my life. It was a stiff price to pay for the education that I received. But, you know, six of one, half-a-dozen of another. I have the wherewithal to challenge myself for my entire life. That's a great gift. The rest of the pieces I work at reassembling for myself.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Was school an important part of your life?

Twyla Tharp: Well, it was necessary that I be valedictorian, I was valedictorian. Did I enjoy going to school? I hated it. I hated the pressure of the situation, because I had to excel. It wasn't a choice on my part, it was expected.

And in college I went three semesters to Pomona, and then I transferred to Barnard. I graduated in art history, and I was allowed to take, outside of the physical education department, all the dancing that I could avail myself of in New York; which, at the time, was really quite extraordinary.

Twyla Tharp Interview Photo
I was privileged to be able to study a year with Martha Graham, the last year she was teaching. I worked with Merce Cunningham. I worked with Erick Hawkins. Alwin Nikolais was teaching. I was able to join the Taylor Company immediately when I got out. I had classes with Antony Tudor, and I saw all the great young dancers coming up in these classes: Cynthia Gregory, Toni Lander, Violette Verdy, wonderful, wonderful dancers. All the City Ballet dancers were regulars in the classes that I took.

Consequently, I had a very wide exposure to all of these dance elements when I was still in college. It meant a double curriculum, but it meant half the time, so there you are.

What teachers most inspired you?

Twyla Tharp: Martha was very important to me. I never studied with Balanchine, but his work was very important to me. During the course of my entire academic career, from kindergarten through a college degree, I would say only one professor. Julius Heald, at Columbia, taught a course in Flemish iconography. He seemed to be a gentleman who pursued investigation as an art form, and was very creative in his work.

Twyla Tharp: The formal education that I received made little sense to me. I've used it. I'm very grateful to have had it. I use particularly the aspects of art history, and that sense of context all the time in working. I always feel a spectrum and parameters to what I do. It's not isolated. And I'm very grateful to having had access to those disciplines. But in terms of individuals who actually inspired, I think that I'd have to say that very few of the academic people that I had access to had that power over me. Maybe it's simply because I wasn't that committed to geometry. Actually that's not true; I loved geometry. I love forms, that's part of the investigation of space.

I can't even say it about biology, because biology is a living thing. I loved English. I write. I have read a great deal. I enjoy books. I enjoy the use of the English language. I like the wit of languages. Even French I like. I like to be able to think in different modes. I like to be able to abuse the language a great deal, and carry on rehearsals in French, which the French dancers will lie down for, because they can't believe what I'm saying.

There really is nothing I ever had access to that I didn't appreciate. I just don't connect it to an individual. I always, somehow, knew that I was going to dance. I wouldn't give that respect to any of these other people who were in these misguided professions, where they were not dancing.

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This page last revised on Dec 06, 2007 18:11 EDT
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