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Twyla Tharp’s Back Pages, With Chapters to Come

Ms. Tharp’s season begins at the Joyce Theater (Sept. 19-Oct. 8). In November comes a premiere at the Royal Ballet in London; and the next month Ms. Tharp travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for “Minimalism and Me,” the lecture-performance, focusing on her dances created from 1965 to 1970.

It’s a lot. There is, however, a common thread: Ms. Tharp is diving into her past to fuel her present.

“This is her life,” Linda Shelton, the Joyce’s executive director, said about all the activity. “I think it’s in her DNA, and she doesn’t seem to be slowing down. She’s in the studio all the time. Maybe this is a new chapter. She certainly still has that drive and ambition.”

At the Joyce, along with a new work, “Dylan Love Songs” — it is set to music by Bob Dylan, but that’s all it shares with her short-lived 2006 Broadway show, “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” — Ms. Tharp will also mount two classics.

One, “The Fugue,” her 1970 masterpiece performed by three dancers on an amplified stage, takes inspiration from Bach’s “The Musical Offering.” “The Fugue” is based on a 20-count theme that is developed into 20 variations — a marvel of reversals, inversions and repetitions.

The other, “The Raggedy Dances,” is less known. This playful dance from 1972 evokes silent-movie comedy — don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-’em moments include a robbery scene and a charley horse episode, in which a dancer’s leg cramps up. At an August rehearsal in the Catskills, where Ms. Tharp’s group was in residence, she called the piece “an enterprise in naturalness.”

Featuring music by Scott Joplin, William Bolcom and Mozart, “The Raggedy Dances” was revived with the help of Sara Rudner and Rose Marie Wright, two of its original cast members. “Part of the adventure is do you have a classic here or don’t you?” Ms. Tharp said. “If you don’t, then you try to update it; if you do, you leave it be and you live with it. So that’s the test for an old piece like this. We went as close to the original as we possibly could.”

At the Royal Ballet, she’s fusing the old and the new. “The Illustrated Farewell” expands her acclaimed “As Time Goes By” by adding a prequel. The original work, set to the third and fourth movements of Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony,” was created for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973. At the time, she didn’t feel ready to tackle the complete score.

“I knew I couldn’t do the first two,” movements she said. “No way did I know enough to carry that entire symphony.”


Sara Rudner, left, and Rose Marie Wright performing “The Raggedy Dances” in 1972. Ms. Rudner and Ms. Wright helped Ms. Tharp with the revival of the piece for her Joyce Theater season.

William Pierce

But what she created established her as a serious choreographic force in ballet. In The New Yorker, Arlene Croce wrote, “She seems to be on the verge of creating a new style, a new humanity, for classical-ballet dancers.”

For the extended version at the Royal Ballet, Ms. Tharp will complete the first two movements, which feature only two dancers, Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae. “I built the entire first two movements, which is 14-some plus odd minutes on them.”

There are moments in which one or the other leaves the stage, but those, she said, would be brief. (As an act of stamina, it’s as intense as it is heroic.) “As Time Goes By” will then be performed intact, but with one addition: Ms. Lamb and Mr. McRae will return midway through the finale.

Ms. Tharp said she considered “As Time Goes By” her first grown-up ballet. “It was made for ballet dancers with no thought about what modern dance was,” she said. “It was certainly about expanding the classical vocabulary — starting with the classical vocabulary, not with a contemporary movement vocabulary. It was not in the vernacular. I happened to speak both vocabularies.”

In Chicago, Ms. Tharp will return to modern dance, fleshing out her early days. After graduating from Barnard College in 1963, she moved to a loft on Franklin Street; in downtown Manhattan, she found herself surrounded by artists including Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin.

Rehearsal spaces were found by poring over lists of condemned buildings. In one, it was necessary to step over the missing floorboards of a staircase leading to an abandoned gymnasium, she says, and blood from a knife fight on the running track above had dripped into the dancers’ area. But having the freedom to create made all the difference for Ms. Tharp; during this time, she started to figure out what it meant to be an artist.

“Minimalism and Me” will spotlight seven early works created before “The Fugue.” Yolanda Cesta Cursach, the museum’s curator of performance, was particularly interested in the period of Ms. Tharp’s career when she worked in nontraditional spaces like museums and parks.

“She was not necessarily interested in engaging completely,” Ms. Cursach said. “She created a body of work that was so distinctive in that period. I’ve always wanted to have a platform where it could be experienced and understood in its own terms.”

Of those early works, Ms. Tharp said: “They were never intended as dances. They were intended as experiences for us to learn about what movement is, how it can hold a space, how it occupies time, how you engage people — all of these things that I thought were components of what a good dance was.”

They set her up to create “The Fugue,” which she referred to as Opus 1. “Up until that time, all of this was adventure, but never considered a dance for posterity,” she said. “ ‘The Fugue’ is.”

The museum presentation includes “Tank Dive,” “Re-Moves,” “Disperse,” “Generation” and “Medley”; she’ll illustrate the works with photographs, films and performance, as well as with her meticulous drawings and notations that recorded steps and directions for each dance and dancer.

Works of art unto themselves, the drawings began to be a part of her process when she choreographed “Generation,” a 1968 piece for five dancers performing simultaneous solos.

“I started looking at all possibilities of movement and started writing it out in longhand,” she said. “Every single shift of weight is notated.”

There’s no exhibition planned, but Ms. Cursach, the museum’s curator of performance, said she was interested in the possibility of bringing a show to fruition. Ms. Tharp said she would welcome it. It also helps that unlike others, she isn’t afraid of looking at the past.

“It can be very depressing for some people to go back into the past, both to remember how things were and to remember how things weren’t,” she said. “The regret of it. I think people want things to be exactly the way they were then, because they remember how they were then. And they were always younger. That’s called nostalgia.”

Instead, Ms. Tharp chooses to see the past as evolution, as a series of steppingstones: “It’s about using all of this accumulation as a launching pad for a future.”

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