In the words of critic Arlene Croce, the innovative dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp “swept away the ideological dividing line between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ and ‘pop.’” The eldest of four children, Twyla was born in rural Portland, Illinois, on July 1, 1942. Her mother, an aspiring concert pianist, gave her daughter her unusual name because she thought it would look good on a marquee. When Twyla was eight, the Tharps moved to Rialto, California, where her father built and operated a drive-in theater. He also constructed the family home, which included a room equipped with a dance fioor and ballet barre. Blessed with perfect pitch, Twyla started taking piano lessons from her mother before she was two. She later added classes in social dance, ballet, violin, drums, and baton. By negotiating a highly demanding schedule of lessons, she developed an impressive self-discipline that characterized her adult career. After high school, Tharp entered Pomona College in California, intending to become a psychiatrist. Three semesters later, she transferred to New York City’s Barnard College with the new goal of becoming a dancer. While majoring in art history at Barnard, Tharp studied ballet at the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and modern dance with MARTHA GRAHAM, Merce Cunningham, and Erick Hawkins. While in college, she married fellow student Peter Young. This marriage and a second one to artist Bob Huot ended in divorce. Jesse, her son by Huot, was born in 1971.
Graduating in 1963, Tharp joined the Paul Taylor Company, but her ambition and independence moved her to quit in order to form her own troupe the next year. Initially an all-woman company, the troupe appeared primarily in nontheater spaces, such as gyms, museums, and parks. In keeping with the avant-garde currents of the day, Tharp’s dances tended toward minimalism in movement and in stage design. The pinnacle of her minimalist stage was Fugue (1970). The piece was performed without music, though its three dancers wore high-heeled boots equipped with microphones to create their own accompaniment. Critics saw a new warmth and wit in Tharp’s Eight Jelly Rolls (1971), during which her dancers wore backless tuxedos while moving to the music of early jazz great Jelly Roll Morton. Tharp also played with music in The Bix Pieces (1971). Though Tharp choreographed the work to Franz Joseph Haydn’s Opus 76, it was performed to the jazz of Bix Beiderbecke. Tharp’s breakthrough work, Deuce Coupe (1973), was also a hallmark in modern dance history. Commissioned by the Joffrey Ballet, it was performed to 14 songs by the Beach Boys in front of a set painted anew before each performance by teenage graffiti artists. The choreography—an eclectic mix of movements from ballet, Graham technique, popular dances, tap, and jazz—was performed by dancers from the Joffrey and from Tharp’s own company. One critic called it “a dialogue between American ballet and American Bandstand, which makes both seem more wonderful for the comparison.”
The enormous success of Deuce Coupe made Tharp modern dance’ s most popular choreographer to “cross over,” that is, to work in both classical and modern styles. She choreographed As Time Goes By (1973) for the Joffrey and then created five works for the ABT. There, she worked with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she developed a close professional and personal relationship. With him in mind, she choreographed Push Comes to Shove (1976), which dramatized the tensions between a ballet company and its star dancer. Other notable works by Tharp include Brahms-Handel (1984) for the New York City Ballet and Rules of the Game (1989) for the Paris Opera Ballet. Always fascinated by film since working at her parents’ drive-in, Tharp also welcomed movie and television projects. She choreographed dance sequences in three films directed by Milos FormanHair (1979), Ragtime (1980), and Amadeus (1984)—and created a dance number for Baryshnikov and tap dancer Gregory Hines in White Nights (1985). Tharp and her works have also been the subject of several television specials, most notably Making Television Dance (1977), Baryshnikov by Tharp (1985), and Twyla Tharp: Oppositions (1996). Tharp’s interest in narrative has also led her to work on creating evening-long theater pieces. In both When We Were Very Young (1980) and The Catherine Wheel (1981), she told the story of chaotic, dysfunctional families. In 1985, on Broadway, she created choreography for Singing in the Rain—a stage adaptation of the classic 1952 movie musical Singin’ in the Rain. The result was slammed by critics, though audience demand kept the show running for a year.
Stung by the bad reception of Singing in the Rain, Tharp’s company lost some of its central members. This problem, combined with Tharp’s weariness with continual fund-raising, led her to disband the group in 1988. The same year, she joined Baryshnikov at the ABT, where she served as an artistic associate. When Baryshnikov left the company a year later, Tharp followed suit. Tharp has since toured frequently, putting ogether temporary troupes of talented young dancers. In addition to choreographing new works for the ABT, New York City Ballet, and the Boston Ballet, she wrote her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove (1992). For the new energy she brought to both classical ballet and modern dance, Tharp was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1992. In 1997, she was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Throughout the 1990s, Tharp was in demand as a freelance choreographer. Among the companies she created dances for were the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company, and the American Ballet Theater. She formed a new company, the Twyla Tharp Dance company, in 2000 and began developing a dance school in Brooklyn, New York. In 2001, Tharp explained that she now wants to work with only “great” dancers, defining greatness as “ambition, sweetness, personableness . . . I mean there’s something absolutely connected, a commitment that goes beyond sincerity. English does not supply the right descriptions for greatness—you just feel it.”
Rogosin, Elinor. The Dance Makers: Conversations with American Choreographers. New York: Walker, 1980.
Tharp, Twyla. Push Comes to Shove. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra & More . . . (1984). Kultur Video, VHS, 1991.
The Catherine Wheel (1982). Elektra/Asylum, VHS, 1992.
Hair (1979). MGM Home Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 1999/2000.