Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp (born 1941) developed a unique style that merged ballet and modern dance technique with various forms of American vernacular dance.
Twyla Tharp was born in Portland, Indiana, July 1, 1941, the daughter of Lecile and William Tharp. Her grandparents on both sides were Quakers who farmed the land. She was named after Twila Thornburg, the reigning Pig Princess at the 89th Annual Muncie Fair, with the "i" changed to "y" because her mother always said it would look better on a marquee. Twyla was the eldest of her siblings: twin brothers and a sister, Twanette. Her mother, a piano teacher, began giving Twyla lessons when the child was one and one-half years old.
When Tharp was eight years old the family moved to the desert town of Rialto, California, where her parents built and operated the local drive-in movie theater. The house her father built in Rialto included a playroom with a practice section featuring a built-in tap floor, ballet barres, and closets filled with acrobatics mats, batons, ballet slippers, pointe shoes, castanets, tutus, and capes for matador routines. Her well-known tendency to consider herself a workaholic and a perfectionist began in her heavily-scheduled childhood.
Tharp began her dance lessons at the Vera Lynn School of Dance in San Bernardino, then studied with the Mraz sisters. She also studied violin, piano, and drums, plus Flamenco, castanets, and cymbals with Enrico Cansino, an uncle of Rita Hayworth, and baton twirling with Ted Otis, an ex-world champion. At age 12 she began studying ballet with Beatrice Collenette, who trained and danced with Anna Pavlova. She attended Pacific High School and spent her summers working at the family drive-in.
Tharp entered Pomona College as a freshman, moving to Los Angeles that summer to continue her dance training with Wilson Morelli and John Butler. At mid-term of her sophomore year she transferred to Barnard College in New York. She studied ballet with Igor Schwezoff at American Ballet Theater, then Richard Thomas and his wife, Barbara Fallis. She began attending every dance concert she could and studied with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Eugene "Luigi" Lewis, the jazz teacher. In 1962 she married Peter Young, a painter whom she had met at Pomona College. Her second husband was Bob Huot, an artist. Both marriages ended in divorce. Huot and Tharp had one son, Jesse, born 1971.
Tharp graduated from Barnard in 1963 with a degree in art history. She made her professional debut that year with the Paul Taylor company, billed as Twyla Young. In the following year, at age 23, she formed her own company, which began experimenting with movement in an improvisatory manner. For the first five years Tharp and her dancers struggled, but by the early 1970s she began to be recognized for a breezy style of dance that added irreverent squiggles, shrugged shoulders, little hops, and jumps to conventional dance steps, a technique she called the "stuffing" of movement phrases. She also made dances to every kind of music and composer from Bach, Haydn, and Mozart to the early American jazz of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton; American pop, including the songs of Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and David Byrne; and the experimental composers, including Philip Glass.
Among the most innovative of her early pieces is "The Fugue" (1970) for four dancers, set to the percussive beat of their own feet on a miked floor. In 1971 she choreographed "Eight Jelly Rolls" to music by Morton and The Red Hot Peppers and "The Bix Pieces" to music by Bix Beiderbecke. Tharp performed as a member of her company until the mid-1980s when she stopped dancing to concentrate on her many projects for television and film, as well as for her company. She returned to performing in 1991. Other works for her company include "Sue's Leg" (1975), "Baker's Dozen" (1979), "In The Upper Room" (1986), and "Nine Sinatra Songs" (1982).
In 1973 she created a work for the Joffrey Ballet, her first for a company other than her own and her first work for dancers on point. Tharp used the Joffrey dancers and her own company in a work entitled "Deuce Coupe, " set to music by the Beach Boys. The setting was created on stage each night by teenage graffiti artists. A huge success, Tharp went on to create "As Time Goes By" (1973) for the Joffrey; five works for American Ballet Theater, including "Push Comes to Shove" (1976) and "Sinatra Suite" (1984), both with leading roles for Mikhail Baryshnikov; "Brahms-Handel" (1984) in collaboration with Jerome Robbins for New York City Ballet; and "Rules of the Game" (1989) for the Paris Opera Ballet. Tharp's dual work for her own company and for the ballet troupes made her among the first to demand a "cross-over" dancer to perform her choreography, one who would be equally at home in ballet and modern dance technique.
With the success of "Deuce Coupe, " Tharp was everywhere in demand for her irreverent, funky-look choreography that had appeal to the widest array of audiences that had ever watched dance performances in the United States. She made her first television program for the PBS series Dance in America (1976), continuing in the medium with "Making Television Dance" (1980), "Scrapbook Tapes" (1982), "The Catherine Wheel" (1983) for BBC, and the television special "Baryshnikov by Tharp" (1985). Her film work began in 1978 with the Milos Forman film "Hair, " followed by "Ragtime" (1980), "Amadeus" (1984), and "White Nights" (1985). Tharp directed two full-evening productions on Broadway: "The Catherine Wheel" (1981) and the stage adaptation of the film "Singing in the Rain" (1985).
By 1987 the strain of raising money to keep her dancers on salary and the attraction of the various projects that interested her forced her to disband her own company. She was invited to join American Ballet Theater (ABT) as artistic associate with Baryshnikov. When he departed ABT in 1989, she left as well, taking her ballets from the ABT repertory. After that her works were set on the Boston Ballet and the Hubbard Street Dance Company, based in Chicago.
After leaving ABT, Tharp embarked on a variety of endeavors that kept her in the forefront of American dance, including an autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, published in 1992; a series of tours with pick-up companies of dancers recruited mainly from the ballet troupes where she had worked; and a new work for the Boston Ballet, which premiered in April 1994. She was the recipient of many awards, including a creative citation in dance from Brandeis University (1972), the MacArthur "Genius" Award (1992), and five honorary doctorates.
In 1994, Tharp continued to tour nationally and internationally in the mid-90's with her indispensable assistant, Shelley Washington Whitman, often working without a company of her own or a permanent support base. In 1996, she choreographed Born Again, a trio of new dances performed by a group of thirteen young unknowns, selected in a series of nationwide auditions and trained by Tharp and Whitman. She returned to the ABT in 1995 with a successful revisions of two recent works, "Americans We" (1995), and "How Near Heaven" (1995), and a new work, "The Elements."
Further Reading on Twyla Tharp
For additional information on Twyla Tharp see her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove (1992). For interesting interviews see Elinor Rogosin, The Dance Makers: Conversations with American Choreographers (1980) and Suzanne Weil, Contemporary Dance (1978). Selected works about Tharp include Joan Acocella, "Balancing Act, " in Dance Magazine (October 1990); Arlene Croce, Afterimages (1977), Going to the Dance (1982), and Sightlines (1987); Marcia Siegel, The Shapes of Change (1979); and Barbara Zuch, "Tharp Moves, " Dance Magazine (January 1992). Her work has been extensively reviewed in The New York Times, Village Voice, New Yorker Magazine, and Dance Magazine. The Twyla Tharp Archives are kept at the Robert E. Lee Theater Research Institute at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.