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Twyla Tharp Keeps Pushing Boundaries of Dance

  • Bill Zeeble

A photo from the Dallas premiere of "Yowzie," which is danced to jazz, with funny interactions between couples, and slapstick moves inspired by Twyla Tharp’s beloved silent film comedies.

A photo from the Dallas premiere of "Yowzie," which is danced to jazz, with funny interactions between couples, and slapstick moves inspired by Twyla Tharp’s beloved silent film comedies.

In April of 1965, Twyla Tharp, with two colleagues, danced her first work, using Petula Clark’s popular song Downtown.

Tank Dive lasted all of about 4½ minutes... “because I figured that’s all I knew about a beginning a middle and an end. And I could get it into that period of time. So if you were late you kind of missed whole thing,” Tharp recalled with a laugh.

Fourteen people showed. But the choreographer and dancer says that was ok, because she knew then she could do it.

Twyla Tharp has become an American icon, creating hundreds of dances over five decades, presenting them on the dance stage, Broadway theaters, for television and film. She's put her unique stamp on productions of HAIR, Amadeus, Ragtime and White Nights, and won a Tony, two Emmy’s, been a Kennedy Center Honoree and a MacArthur Fellow.

WATCH: 'Yowzie,' Part 1, Courtesy of Twyla Tharp Foundation

WATCH: 'Yowzie,' Part 2, Courtesy of Twyla Tharp Foundation

WATCH: 'Yowzie,' Part 3, Courtesy of Twyla Tharp Foundation

Tharp’s 74. On her current 17-city anniversary tour, she presents not one, but two premieres. She does not believe in slowing down.

“The point of work to me, is doing more work. There’s always time for the past and I value the past. Not only my past, but others’ pasts. But the future has lots of room for the past. The present has only now.”

Twyla Tharp (Courtesy of Ruven Afanador)

Twyla Tharp (Courtesy of Ruven Afanador)

World as it ought to be

And for now, Tharp says, it’s time for the world as it ought to be, and for the world as it is…at least according to her.

To Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Tharp pays tribute to dance giants she learned from: Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine. Her first new work, Preludes and Fugues, presents a world of equality, justice, balance.

“People have an overview of tolerance, and diversity does not separate. It’s possible to congregate as a diverse lot," she pointed out. "That would be the world as it ought to be. The world as it is had best be approached with humor."

And so the other new work in her golden anniversary tour, Yowzie, is danced to jazz, with funny interactions between couples, and slapstick moves inspired by Tharp’s beloved silent film comedies.

Pop, rock, jazz

As she helped pioneer the use of pop, rock and jazz in serious dance, she also blended modern and classical ballet moves in her work. That used to shock the dance world, but no more.

Dancer John Selya, who matured with the classical American Ballet Theater, joined Tharp 16 years ago. “I love being a ballet dancer but sometimes I disagree with how marginalized it is. People have a certain idea of it. And if it goes out of the boundaries, they reject it."

Selya embraced it, welcoming the challenge of dancing in Tharp’s company, and learning to be more creative than he’d been allowed at ABT. He says Tharp inspired it.

"If you don’t use that freedom, you run the risk of not really entertaining her. And she really loves to be entertained by what you’ve kind of digested and are putting back out to her.”

Twyla Tharp's first new work, "Preludes and Fugues," presents a world of equality, justice, balance.

Twyla Tharp's first new work, "Preludes and Fugues," presents a world of equality, justice, balance.

Combining dance styles and musical genres opened up the art form, according to Lily Weiss. The long-time professional dancer is the artistic director at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington high school. It’s consistently among the nation's best arts schools. She says Tharp, the pioneer, is the role model for pushing boundaries.

“That’s why she was so accessible and so successful. I think because she not only spoke to the patron who wants to be moved by art but she spoke to a patron that enjoyed watching accessible dance."

Premed student

Tharp is also just really funny. She was a premed student before deciding she could learn more about the human body through dance. Other than honorary degrees, she doesn’t have a PhD or medical degree.

But she told an audience in Dallas – the opening city on her tour – "I do consider myself a doctor … and one of my missions, is that when an audience leaves our theater that audience needs to feel better leaving than they did coming in and if it doesn’t we haven’t done our job.”

Twyla Tharp’s anniversary prescription to audiences has been these two new works and two past pieces on a triumphant national tour.

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