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Twyla Tharp

Biography: Twyla Tharp
Dancer and Choreographer

Twyla Tharp Date of birth: July 1, 1941

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Twyla Tharp was born in Portland, Indiana, but moved with her parents to Southern California when she was still a child. The Tharp family owned and operated a drive-in movie theater in Rialto, California, and Twyla attended school in nearby San Bernardino. Twyla's mother was a piano teacher who began to give Twyla piano lessons when she was only two. Twyla began dance classes at age four, and soon was studying every kind of dance available: ballet, tap, jazz, modern. Her mother was determined that she become accomplished in as many fields as possible and also had her take baton lessons, drum lessons, violin and viola lessons, classes in painting, shorthand, French and German.

Twyla Tharp left home for the first time to go to Pomona College, but after three semesters, she transferred to Barnard College in New York City. At Barnard, Tharp studied art history, but found her passion in the dance classes she took off campus. In New York, she was able to study at the American Ballet Theater school, and with most of the great masters of modern dance: Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Erick Hawkins. She completed her art history degree, but she had already resolved to make a career in dance. Shortly after graduation in 1963, she joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company, but within two years, she left to start her own group, Twyla Tharp Dance. This company, originally composed of five women (two men were added in 1969), worked ceaselessly for five years, performing wherever they could, earning little or no money for their work.

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In the cultural ferment of New York in the 1960s, most young artists felt challenged to test the boundaries of their media. Twyla Tharp's work fused classical discipline and rigor with avant-garde iconoclasm, combining ballet technique with natural movements like running, walking and skipping. While modern dance had historically aspired to high seriousness and spirituality, Tharp's work was humorous and edgy. She worked less often with contemporary avant-garde music than with classical music, pop songs, a clicking metronome, or silence. Always, the choreography was dynamic, unpredictable and underpinned by an unusually thorough musical intelligence. This became apparent to critics and audiences alike with her 1971 piece, The Fugue. Her group was invited to participate in major dance festivals where works like The Bix Pieces and Eight Jelly Rolls grabbed audiences with their physical daring and deep roots in the history of jazz.

Twyla Tharp and many of her dancers were now invited to collaborate and perform with major ballet companies. The Joffrey Ballet premiered her Deuce Coupe (set to music by the Beach Boys), As Time Goes By and Sue's Leg . At American Ballet Theater, Mikhail Baryshnikov danced the lead role in Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, which juxtaposed variations by Mozart with rags by Scott Joplin. The Russian ballet star and the young American iconoclast were a powerful combination, and collaborated frequently in the following decades.

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In 1979, she choreographed the dances for Milos Forman's film version of the '60s rock musical Hair. In the decades ahead, much of her work would appear on Broadway, beginning with an original Tharp production, When We Were Very Young, in 1980. The following year, she staged a full-length dance production, The Catherine Wheel, on Broadway, with music by David Byrne in his first venture as a composer outside of the rock band Talking Heads. She continued to work in film as well, staging dances for the films Ragtime and Amadeus, both directed by Forman, and White Nights, starring Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. Her 1984 television production, Baryshnikov by Tharp, won three Emmy Awards, as well as a Director's Guild of America Award for her direction of the special. The following year, she directed and choreographed a stage production of the classic film musical Singin' In the Rain. The show enjoyed a solid run on Broadway and a highly successful national tour.

Twyla Tharp Biography Photo
In the late 1980s, Tharp continued to create ballets at a slightly less hectic pace than before, while her past works became a staple of ballet companies around the world. in 1991, she reunited her company, Twyla Tharp Dance, with Baryshnikov joining the group in a program entitled Cutting Up. The work enjoyed one of the most successful tours in the history of contemporary dance. Twyla Tharp's autobiography, Push Comes to Shove , was published in 1992. In the same year, she received a MacArthur Fellowship, one of the so-called "genius grants." At the time of her 1993 interview with the Academy of Achievement, she was preparing dances for the motion picture I'll Do Anything, directed by James L. Brooks. Although the project was originally conceived as a contemporary musical, the studio cut all musical number from the film before its release. Returning to the world of pure dance, Tharp created new works at a feverish pace for the rest of the decade. From 1999 to 2003, Twyla Tharp Dance toured the world to enormous popular and critical acclaim.

Tharp returned to Broadway in 2002 with an original dance musical, Movin' Out, built around the songs of Billy Joel. The songs were performed by a singer and pianist, accompanied by a rock band placed above the stage, while a company of dancers acted out a story of young people living through the tumultuous events of the 1960s and '70s. The show brought Tharp a host of honors, including the Tony Award. Movin' Out became Tharp's most popular creation to date, running for over three years on Broadway. A national company toured the United States for another three years and also made stops in Canda and Japan.

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In 2003, Twyla Tharp published a second book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life, in which she shared life lessons from her own career and those of artists throughout the ages. The following year, her lifetime contribution to her country's culture was recognized with the National Medal of Arts, presented by President George W. Bush in a ceremony at the White House. In 2006, Tharp brought a second "jukebox musical" to Broadway, The Times They Are a Changin', based on the songs of Bob Dylan. The show was less well received than Movin' Out, but Twyla Tharp's prodigious creative energies are far from exhausted. As of this writing, she has choregraphed over 130 dances, apart from her work for Broadway, film and television. Every year, her pieces such as Brahms Paganini, Nine Sinatra Songs and Waterbaby Bagatelles, are performed by ballet companies around the world. Her creative vision has had a pervasive influence on the work of younger choreographers and has permanently expanded the boundaries of contemporary dance.




This page last revised on Dec 06, 2007 16:39 EDT