The story reveals a lot about Twyla Tharp and why she’s one of the century’s most renowned choreographers. Sitting with a handful of reporters at the Catskill Mountain Foundation (CMF) headquarters in Hunter, Tharp described what happened when she was asked to perform at the 1984 Olympics.
“I decided I had to be in the best shape of my life,” she said. “I considered boxing the best training there is, for speed, coordination of feet and hands, stamina. But there were no women boxing in 1984.” A friend put her in touch with Teddy Atlas, protégé of Cus D’Amato, the trainer of Floyd Patterson and who discovered and trained Mike Tyson in Catskill. At first, Atlas refused to work with then 43-year-old Tharp, but she wore him down, cut off her long fingernails, took off the polish, and wrapped up her hands.
“Good trainers have horrible people around them, but they themselves have good hearts,” said Tharp. “He took me on for six months. We were jumping rope, running up and down stairs, running stairs backwards. It was a really good discipline, not just physically, but for concentration. When you’re working with stuff coming at you for 15 or 20 minutes, you’re ready for your first call in the morning.”
Tharp has brought her legendary discipline, determination, and penchant for hard work to the Catskills for a six-week residency, part of Pathways to Dance, a new eight-county, ten-venue Capital Region initiative. Led by Proctors Theater in Schenectady in collaboration with the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, the organization aims at bringing dance upstate to support the arts and enhance tourism opportunities in the area.
Nine members of Tharp’s company have come to Greene County to revive two of her early pieces, “Country Dances” (1976) and “Brahms Paganini” (1980), and develop a new work set to a Beethoven string quartet, Opus 130. A showcase of work-in-progress will be presented at CMF’s Orpheum Theater in Tannersville on Saturday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m.
Tharp finds that working upstate has advantages over her New York City routine. CMF’s Red Barn in Hunter offers plenty of space for reviewing video of the two revival pieces and working on the new material, while the Orpheum is a short van ride away for onstage run-throughs and daily class. “Even Balanchine didn’t have three spaces to work in at Lincoln Center,” Tharp mused. “And there’s no replacing air, good food, open hearts, a willingness to see something succeed, no traffic, few people.”
When asked whether dancers are born or made, Tharp replied, “A dancer is trained by their mother.” She received a solid push from her own mother, a concert pianist whose career was cut off by World War II and motherhood. “She started us all on ear training when we were babies,” Tharp recalled. “Two of us have perfect pitch, and the other two have relative pitch. I started working with a piano teacher when I was two years old. I learned to read music by color. When I hear a D, I see red, when I hear a C, I see yellow. My mother designed my name. It’s a good brand. The Tharp is real. Twila was a pig princess in the county one over from ours, in Indiana. Mother thought the ‘y’ would look better on a marquee.”
She estimated that half the dancers in her company have mothers who are dance teachers. Not only future dancers but all children can benefit from early training, which teaches such skills as coordination of movement and music, balancing the left and right sides. “No sport uses the feet the way dance does,” Tharp declared. “We, as dancers, have many more options than other athletes — except maybe Muhammed Ali. When an athlete is great, we call them a dancer.”
As a child, Tharp studied ballet, tap, hula, and twirling with the best instructors her mother could find. When she was eight, the family moved to southern California, and her parents built a 650-car drive-in theater, where she worked until she went away to college. She saw every movie and cartoon made in those years, an experience that informed her choreographic skills. “If you have a screen, there’s always movement,” she explained. “You become sophisticated about time — how long can a frame hold, when do you have to go to the next scene, fades, cross-dissolves, all those transitions. When there are kisses, you know you have to get back to the snack bar because you’re about to have a rush on hot dogs.”
Tharp majored in art history at Barnard College, continuing her romance with the visual. In New York City, she hobnobbed with artists — Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly — and choreographed in the vein of 1960s modern dance, never in the context of a proscenium stage. The following decade, Robert Joffrey saw her work and invited her to choreograph a ballet, leading to work with such stars as Baryshnikov. She did films with Milos Forman: Hair, Ragtime, Amadeus. In the 80s, she began choreographing Broadway shows and writing books, producing an autobiography and two books on creativity and collaboration, drawing on her growing body of experience.
The key to collaboration is to work with people you trust, said Tharp, “people who know what they’re doing, who there’s a real connection to, and you can be really clear about what you need — because guess what, they’re really busy people.” Her 1986 piece In the Upper Room was scored by Philip Glass, who was “doing a thousand things at one time,” recalled Tharp. “I said, ‘Just do this — write me three and a half minutes every day before breakfast.’” In the Upper Room was the first piece choreographed by a woman to be performed by the Bolshoi Ballet.
It’s important to be prepared when dealing with potential collaborators: “You want to be sure you really mean what you’re asking for, because you might get it. You have to do homework in advance.” When she wanted to work with Billy Joel’s music, she put together a 20-minute video of dance moves to his songs. He liked it, gave her permission to use his work, and sent her all his recordings. As she listened for a way to create flow and unity around the music that scored the 2002 piece Movin’ Out, “I heard a story line, which was essentially, ‘Sing to me, muse, of the rage of Achilles.’ I had been working on Surfer at the River Styx, based on Euripides, and in a way, Movin’ Out is The Bacchae. Men at war, valiant men, men who are maimed, who suffer and have to find a new life. It’s painfully tedious, and it’s always the same story.”
After all, said, Tharp, “There are only two stories: Romeo and Juliet, and Jack and the Beanstalk — that’s it.”
Twyla Tharp will present a showcase of work-in-progress at Catskill Mountain Foundation’s Orpheum Theater, 6050 Main Street, Tannersville, on Saturday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. For information and tickets, visit https://www.catskillmtn.org.