In a career spanning more than 50 years, the acclaimed choreographer has been tireless in her pursuit of excellence and pushing the boundaries of movement. As she returns to Royal Ballet to create a new work for the company, the indefatigable 76-year-old shows no sign of slowing down as she tells Neil Norman about her latest projects
If Twyla Tharp was not a child prodigy, it wasn’t for want of trying. Her piano teacher mother Lucille started her on lessons when she was barely 18 months old. Shortly afterwards she was learning the violin, followed by the drums, then German and French. And, finally, ballet. By the time Tharp was eight years old and the family was running its own drive-in movie theatre, the little girl was precocious and intelligent way beyond her years.
Lucille Tharp might be described in terms of what the Chinese call a ‘tiger mom’. And that upbringing instilled in Twyla a creative energy and hunger for knowledge that has never left her.
Schooled in dance by the likes of Merce Cunningham  and Martha Graham – legendary figures in the modern dance world – she quickly developed her own style and formed her first company at the age of 23.
Since then, Tharp has been tireless in her pursuit of individual excellence and pushing the boundaries of movement – from the early days of improvisation to fracturing the formal structures of ballet en pointe.
She has worked in films and on stage, and has amassed an archive of her work, including video snippets of dances as far back as 1965, that is unparalleled.
This year, at the age of 76, she was commissioned by the Royal Ballet to create a new work – her first for the company for 20 years. After some false starts, she decided to go back to an early 1973 piece, As Time Goes By, and expand it. “It was my first formal ballet,” she says during a break in rehearsals at the Royal Opera House.
“When the Royal Ballet asked me to do something, I started considering everything from Brahms to Leonard Cohen. Then I listened to the first two movements of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.”
Having addressed the third and fourth movements of that work for As Time Goes By, she considered herself better prepared to tackle the first two movements, which are much harder to choreograph.
“This is totally a prequel,” she says. “In order to communicate the idea of a prequel, I needed to connect the two – the four-part Adagio is the same as before and we revisit the movement; several motifs are reflected throughout.
“We have a saying in America: ‘Don’t fix what ain’t broke.’ So this is stepping on the toes of the fourth movement. By the end, we are left with one dancer on stage and two violins. I probably wouldn’t have done it with any other company.”
In order to realise her vision, she also needed dancers who could go beyond ‘mere’ dance. She found them in Royal Ballet luminaries Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb.
“Steven and Sarah were not only extraordinary dancers but also had a sense of a bigger world. They are both parents, both married and are – forgive the word – grown-ups.”
It is clear in the early stages of our conversation that Tharp’s knowledge of music is intricate and academic. She has an innate understanding of how music works and how it relates to physical movement.
Since her formative years as a choreographer and dancer she has always pursued the outer rim of dance, exploring ways of wedding everyday movement to the more formal structures of choreography, whether classical or contemporary. And she has a surprising take on which comes first. “In the early years it was assumed that music inspires movement. In fact it’s the other way around – movement propels music. Beethoven was a walker and much of his movement informs his music. He always took a notebook on his walks. You can feel the sound from his movement. All great composers wanted to dance.”
Tharp has always been an innovator and accentuated her formal dance-making with little flourishes of ‘normal’ gesture – a shake of the shoulders here, a skip and a hop there – that have now become part of the modern choreographer’s armoury. But Tharp got there first.
Sitting in front of me in an office high up in the Royal Opera House it is not hard to see the vibrant, lithe young dancer she once was. Her grey hair is fashionably cut and her large shawl swamps a tiny, bird-like physique. Behind her large horn-rimmed glasses her penetrating gaze misses nothing.
Her peppery personality, sharp eyes and forensic intellect combine to give the impression of a bird of prey, more sparrowhawk than sparrow. I wouldn’t want to play poker with her because she would probably see right through the cards as well as her opponent. Any attempt to bluff her would be doomed to failure.
Born in Portland, Indiana, in 1941, Tharp was hothoused from an early age. A voracious reader, she graduated from Barnard College in Manhattan with an art history degree in 1963, having also studied dance at the American Ballet Theatre and later under Graham and Cunningham.
She made her debut as a professional dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company, before forming her own company at 23.
“I had the extraordinary good fortune to be in the room with Graham. Old as she was, she thought she was young. Merce was still going strong in his 40s,” she says of these two legends of dance.
As for her childhood, I ask what her extraordinarily intense and varied education had given her. “It was ecumenical,” she responds. “I translate very quickly from one medium to another. I get a sense of flamenco and the coordination and I understand immediately the sense of how the body produces those sounds. I sense the physical movement in music in my own body. Words generate an idea, not the literal meaning. My first language is ballet.”
Her website is an extraordinarily thorough and useful resource for anyone interested in dance. Pretty much everything she has ever made is catalogued with references, information and visual records going back to her earliest works, including her first piece, Tank Dive in 1965, which was filmed by Robert Barry.
“I got my first video deck in 1968 and I started archiving. Whenever I have done what is called ‘improvisation’ I put it on video and reference it,” she says.
“I started incorporating the use of technology as soon as I could afford it. I have archives of thousands of tapes in cold storage. Some of those tapes have to be stabilised.”
This proved hugely useful when returning to The Raggedy Dances, which had not been staged since 1974. “When it was revived this year, I had the original footage plus the original dancers who could convey the steps; the video was invaluable,” Tharp says. “I’m very fond of explosion diagrams of – forgive the word – ‘product’. Having access to how these pieces were constructed is a valuable resource.”
She is currently working with Indiana University on a programme drawn from her archive with the aim of creating a course on movement and techniques in counterpoint.
In 2018, the entire year will be devoted to The Fugue, her groundbreaking 1970 piece consisting of 20 variations of a 20-count phrase inspired by Bach’s The Musical Offering and danced in total silence. Thinking about it seems to send Tharp off into a reverie. “A theme needs to be not beautiful but useful. We have space. Music doesn’t have space. Learning the fundamentals of music from making Fugue in silence has been scored. It’s a blueprint in time and space. And it will be totally accessible by computer. It has nothing to do with a dancer’s muscle memory, which distorts after a while.”
I don’t take honours that are given specifically to women. I’m just a working artist
There are moments in our conversation when she loses me completely. It is almost as if she talks the same way she makes dance – freely, associative, improvisational, inspired. But she also has the enviable ability to return to earth and answer questions directly.
When asked why dance – unlike opera – rarely addresses topical events, she responds directly. “Opera has language. You have the specifics and detail and that A to B to C linear progression. What we deal with is universal. We don’t stoop to biography. That’s why dance is multinational. And it is free linguistically. The muscular one is a much more ancient form of memory.”
I ask how Tharp, one of the most respected choreographers of recent times, views the gender imbalance in choreography and dance generally. It is the first time she laughs out loud.
“All I can say is that I’m very, very greedy. I set out to learn what male dancers could do. I have always assumed that they are not these gender imbalances – they’re great dancers, they are people. It has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. I don’t take honours that are given specifically to women. I’m just a working artist.”
Having an illustrious career means encountering other illustrious artists. She has worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan and David Byrne to name a few.
There was never any doubt that she and “Misha” Baryshnikov were born to work together. Even so, he had to audition for her.
“We communicated physically,” she says. “In Push Comes to Shove our proportions are the same and the moves are very similar. He didn’t speak English at the time and then he saw that I could choreograph for men. I have always auditioned my collaborators. After all, it’s a case of ‘You’re going to take my time. I don’t care that you’re the greatest technical dancer of the 20th century’. Which he is.
Not all her collaborations have worked out as well as she’d hoped. For every Movin’ Out, the Billy Joel musical/dancework that was a huge triumph, there has been a The Times They Are A-Changin’, which bombed on Broadway after a successful run at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. It is the first time in our talk that I feel I have really struck a nerve.
The way she “survived that Broadway experience” was to remember that it was dedicated to the veterans of the Vietnam war. “They were served very badly by their country and their experience went way beyond language; [the show] had sympathy, empathy for the vets.”
She continues: “It was very successful at the Old Globe. Very successful. But the Broadway producers changed the leading lady and the timbre of the piece changed radically. Bob is not a fancy sofa guy. In San Diego, the show had much more grit and was not like the singalong show that producers wanted it to be for Broadway. Bob had not yet won the Nobel Prize so he was still a big cult.”
Beyond Broadway, Tharp has also successfully choreographed for film, largely for director Milos Forman with whom she collaborated on Hair, Amadeus and Ragtime.
“I did three pictures with Milos and he had no ego. He was good to work with. For Hair, I worked on the script too and the editing for a year,” she says. “The problem is how do you cross the border from normal movement to dance? You don’t need ‘steps’ but you can have movement. I keep in mind the line in Fred Astaire’s contract: ‘Either I move or the camera moves.’ ”
She adds: “The possibility of an ongoing life and choreography for the camera can be very, very interesting. The frustrating thing is trying to translate the thing from stage to screen.”
Q&A: Twyla Tharp
What was your first professional theatre job? My first stage appearance was in Seven Baby Ballerinas at the Pasadena Playhouse.
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked in a snack bar at a drive-in theatre. I was a 12-year-old carhop. I loved to read audiences.
What is your next job? The Illustrated ‘Farewell’.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? No one told me anything.
Who or what is your biggest influence? My mother.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t go unless you really need the job.
If you hadn’t been a dancer/choreographer, what would you have been? Who knows? A painter, probably. I have always been concerned about the so-called ephemerality of what I do. And the commodification.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Life is a ritual.
At 76, Tharp may not be quite as flexible as she once was. But that doesn’t stop her from continuing to keep herself in trim and in good physical shape. What kind of regimen does she pursue now?
“Quite recently I gave up training in the gym. Now I exercise when I am working. After 75 you have acceptance of any chronic injuries. There is still pride in the underlying of the absolute. I have a different kind of detente with my body. I use the weight room here quite consistently – within the parameters of what is possible but not striving for the impossible.”
Reading is a great love for Tharp. But her intense working schedule, which includes the Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation, a museum dedicated to her work and associated projects, and the courses at Indiana University, means she has little time to pick up a book. “I have done 21 straight shows and also I am thinking about the structure for the museum. It’s been very intense this year.”
As a surprise aside, she reveals a love for the Queen of Crime. “I confess I am a real Agatha Christie fan,” Tharp says. “Those books are like lovely mints. They slip down well. Some of her details, like, wow! The structure of her books are like sonnets. They are very elegantly turned.”
Just before she is summoned back to the rehearsal studio I remind her of an observation that New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce made of her after seeing her Beach Boys ballet, Deuce Coupe. She wrote that Tharp “had a logician’s mind and a vaudevillian’s heart. The tension between the two is her hallmark”. Is that an accurate summation of who she is?
“Yes, I agree with that,” she says. “You show me the clown who’s not really skilled in technical control or the great composer who doesn’t have a sense of humour.”
CV: Twyla Tharp
Born: 1941, Portland, Indiana
Training: Vera Lynn School of Dance; Barnard College NYC; American Ballet Theatre
Landmark productions: The Fugue (1970), As Time Goes By (1973), Push Comes to Shove (1976), The Catherine Wheel (1981), In the Upper Room (1986), Movin’ Out (2002), Come Fly Away (2010)
Awards: Tony award for best choreography for Movin’ Out (2002), Drama Desk award for outstanding choreography for Movin’ Out (2002), Academy of Achievement inductee (1993), Kennedy Centre honoree (2008). In addition, she has won two Emmys and has 19 honorary doctorate
The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ is at the Royal Opera House  from November 6-17