Throughout her 50-year career, Twyla Tharp — one of the 20th century’s great choreographers — has had some monumental performances, both as dancer and creator. But Sept. 8, 2001, will go down as one of the most memorable, and not necessarily for the usual reasons.
That day marked the Twyla Tharp Dance Company’s performance at the World Trade Center, which would be the last major performing arts event there. Just over 48 hours later, on Sept. 11, the terrorist attack that changed history happened. On Sept. 12, her company was back in the studio.
Twyla Tharp’s résumé includes four full-length ballets, 129 dances, 12 TV specials, six movies (including Hair) and four Broadway shows.
“We didn’t want this disaster to have an impact on how we proceeded with our lives,” Tharp says. “When we work in the studio, we know who we are, but on the outside we’re not always so certain. Being a professional dancer, that’s your security blanket.
“So to allow this event to literally pull the floor out from under our feet, that didn’t seem appropriate.”
Tharp and her dancers kept doing the very thing that she insists is the key to longevity and creation: work. The company continued rehearsing and performing, and over the next year or so, J.S. Bach’s two-volume The Well-Tempered Clavier — which incidentally shares initials with “the World Trade Center” — stayed in her mind.
Fourteen years later, a new Tharp piece called Preludes and Fugues, using Bach’s WTC, is having its world premiere in Dallas on her 50th Anniversary Tour.
Co-commissioned by Dallas’ TITAS and AT&T Performing Arts Center — along with New York City’s Joyce Theater and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C.; the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif.,; and the Auditorium Theater and Ravinia Festival in Chicago — the work is paired with another Tharp premiere, Yowzie, in a two-month-long American tour that ends at Lincoln Center.
I’m doing new work and am grateful for the opportunity. For me, work has the possibility of the next aspect and evolving from it; work is not dead-ended even when it’s completed.
Charles Santos, the executive director of TITAS, saw that performance Sept. 8, 2001, and became friends with Tharp. He’s one of the people behind this anniversary tour — which Tharp makes clear is not a retrospective.
“I’m doing new work and am grateful for the opportunity,” she says. “For me, work has the possibility of the next aspect and evolving from it; work is not dead-ended even when it’s completed.”
Reflecting on the past
Preludes and Fugues might be new, but it is certainly entwined with her past. Her current company consists of 13 dancers — four of them veteran Tharp dancers, including John Selya, who is on the faculty at Southern Methodist University — and this work uses movements and ideas from Tharp’s history that have never made it to the stage.
They come from her “piano bench,” as she calls it. “Lots of bits and pieces from my archives that have been in existence for a long time that I’ve remembered but I thought were not appropriate for one reason or another,” she says.
In Bach’s world there is a correction; there’s still going to be tragedy but there’s a response to it. In the real world, the response to tragedy comes from humor.
Preludes is more of a serious reflection of the past, and of looking forward, which is why she felt compelled to create a more comic work with Yowzie, which uses existing arrangements of jazz standards by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein. John Zorn composed original fanfares for both works.
“The Bach is the world as it ought to be, and Yowzie is the way it is,” Tharp says. “ ‘Ought to be’ means that there’s balance and symmetry, there’s a righteous order. The world as it is struggles along, it has ups and downs and [is] not very well ordered; it’s chaotic. Frequently it has its moments that cannot be corrected.
“In Bach’s world there is a correction; there’s still going to be tragedy but there’s a response to it. In the real world, the response to tragedy comes from humor.”
With that in mind, Yowzie uses physical comedy, something Tharp has always implemented effectively with her clean and precise movements. She credits this to working at a drive-in theater in her youth and watching the “funnies,” the silent films of Keaton and Chaplin and others.
“Vaudeville and comedy have always been a part of my tradition,” she says. “It’s a fairly shortcut way of getting information across. A happens, B is consequence, C is the result. That’s it.
“That’s a format that I’ve always felt akin to because it’s so succinct and direct.”
Influence on modern dance
That Tharp has rarely had an issue with getting information across is one of the reasons she’s so celebrated. Much of her work is seminal to the development and progression of modern dance, including her The One Hundreds (1970), which was recently revived in New York’s Central Park. Local audiences might remember when Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth re-created this work in its annual Modern Dance Festival at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Tharp’s stylistic vocabulary was noticeable from the day she arrived in New York. In her career, she has worked with such notables as Paul Taylor and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and when her company merged with American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s, she led the country’s major ballet company.
Her résumé includes four full-length ballets, 129 dances, 12 TV specials, six movies (including Hair) and four Broadway shows. For 2002’s Movin’ Out, her highly acclaimed work using Billy Joel songs, she won a Tony Award.
“I don’t not like to do anything,” she says, a smile in her voice. “Everything in my career has been balance.”
Balance and, in case she hasn’t emphasized it enough, including in her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, work. When asked about the secret of her success in our interview, she said the word “work” 16 times in a row.
I don’t not like to do anything. Everything in my career has been balance.
“It’s about being involved, being engaged,” she says. “I try to be very disciplined about what I eat, about sleep, and exercise is a given. Unless one sees that as a responsibility, one won’t do one’s best work. That’s the reason to work: to work the next day.”
That’s why getting back into the studio Sept. 12, 2001, was unquestionable. Not only because it was work, but because it was about creating something else that, in addition to work, helps humans work through unspeakable tragedy: art.
Although she had dropped the idea of a dance connected to Bach’s WTC about a year after 9-11, she came back to it with the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“I was back in the studio after that and wondering about the bleakness of human nature,” she says. “I was asking myself what’s the point in trying to construct something that’s strong and positive when we’re such flawed creatures.
“And I realized, again, that Bach’s sense of [the] ecumenical and his willingness to accommodate so much of that under the umbrella of music meant that art had a place for everyone, and perhaps trying to put into effect this kind of thinking would make it possible for people to feel included rather than excluded.”
Just like she has done in 50 years of the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, she’ll not only entertain audiences, but give them something to ponder.
“I always say that when we’re successful in theater, we send our audiences out feeling better than they did when they came in,” she says.
“Literally, feeling better, because they spend two hours watching people who do things that perhaps had not occurred to them as being possible before that, and that reflects back to them.”
Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour
▪ 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
▪ Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St., Dallas
▪ 214-880-0202; www.attpac.org