Twyla Tharp has been on the road, off and on, for more than a month when I speak with her by phone. She has the sniffles. It’s dinnertime and she hasn’t eaten. But inevitably, maybe, she warms to her subjects — including the processes behind the two new pieces, both for 12 dancers, on her 17-city 50th-anniversary tour, coming to the Auditorium Thursday through Sunday.
Tharp, 74, also ranges over wider terrain: blogging, the role of video in dance, preserving her own work, her history with Hubbard Street. A pianist from childhood with a degree in art history, Tharp has tried her hand, most would say quite creditably, at writing and at choreographing Broadway shows, film and television as well as concert dance. Driven perhaps by a heartland sense of responsibility — Tharp spent her earliest years in Indiana and identifies as a Midwesterner — she’s a polymath who once said “aesthetics and ethics are the same.”
It took more than 15 shows on this tour, for example, for her to feel these two pieces were truly done. Even now, she says, she must “maintain” them by doing “a major overhaul” on occasion. “Great dancers will revise something to make it sit better for them,” she explains. “And sometimes that doesn’t necessarily make it better through the whole piece. So I put the chassis up on the orange boxes and take the wheels off and say, ‘OK, this axle is getting kind of bent here, let’s see if we can’t straighten it out and put the wheel back on.’ ”
The tragedy of 9/11 provided the germ of the Bach piece on this program, “Preludes and Fugues,” Tharp reported in the first of her ongoing “New York Times” blog series about the tour. The next day, devastated, she read the headlines about the fall of the World Trade Center towers — and “flashed” on another WTC I/II: the two volumes of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Her work, she has said, represents “the world as it ought be.”
Tharp’s first task was to select from among the two volumes’ 48 pairs of preludes and fugues to create a playlist that both preserved Bach’s circle of fifths — the sequence of major and minor keys — and wrestled these “gorgeous exercises” into a musical and dramatic arc. Consciously emulating Bach’s process of “drawing on 20 years of work in his piano bench,” most of it never played in his lifetime, Tharp went back to her extensive video archives to select from her own improvised choreographic material, “things that I’d always liked and felt had some validity” but had never used.
In “Yowzie,” the program’s other work, she continues her systematic exploration of early-American jazz artists, including Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke and Willie “the Lion” Smith. For this piece, she uses renditions of Morton and Waller from the 2014 album “Viper’s Drag,” by Henry Butler/Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9.
“Yowzie,” Tharp says, is “essentially about a woman who takes power. You see her at odds with herself and somewhat victimized and deciding, ‘I can handle this.’ She goes about it in a couple of very strange ways, but ends up getting her act together.” Tharp adds that, because it’s a comedy, “Yowzie” is politically incorrect. “Comedy deals with hot buttons,” she says. “You take people off-kilter, then you put them back up on their feet.”
When it comes to archiving her work, Tharp’s goal once again seems to be to do the right thing. “This generation I’m in, we have a whole set of responsibilities that nobody heretofore has had. It used to be in dance: ‘I’ll be dead, they’ll take care of it.’ Well, now you could take care of it. And you know what? It’s your responsibility.” For now, archiving is on the back burner, but she’ll take it up in earnest next year.
Even Tharp’s blogging might be seen as a kind of archive, shedding light on her subtexts, her methods. The author of two books who’s clearly thought deeply about writing, she compares a blog to a watercolor (“it has to be really, really fast, set down quickly”) and a book to an oil painting, which “can be abused and tormented and twisted and torqued and repainted several times.” Whatever she’s writing, she says, “it’s impossible to be too succinct.” As in her choreography, she aims to pack a lot into a little space.
Video will be the main vehicle for preserving her work, however. Calling it “a bank, a vault,” she notes that she has “thousands of hours in cold storage, not only rehearsals but improvs, going back to 1968, I think.”
Will she be attempting to document all 129 of her dances? “No,” she says. “I’ll start with the 15 or 20 ‘keepers’ and then expand it out to the 50 that I think are really, really strong.” The “bridge pieces,” she adds, that “get from point A to point B — they’ll have to fend for themselves, unless I live to 120, and then I’ll have to deal with them.”
Video is also helpful in setting Tharp works on new troupes, which happens often. “In the Upper Room” (1986), for example, has now been danced “by probably 80 different companies,” she says. Video from 1990 of the “excellent” Hubbard Street women’s cast in “The Fugue” (1970) is often used in teaching, she says, because at times these dancers were “clearer” than the original cast. Multiple videos provide “access to choices,” she reasons. “My intention is to make it absolutely clear abstractly what the thing is, but also make it clear there’s a certain amount of wiggle room.”
Tharp believes video will play a role in the future of dance partly because “live performance is becoming so expensive it will be a rarity.” Though she clearly recognizes the drawbacks of now-ubiquitous online dance videos (“What you learn is mostly static”), she also thinks the Internet will facilitate dance “expanding its world — and its dialogue.
“It will be a different dialogue than what’s available with live performance,” Tharp cautions. She compares online video to Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” which she calls “totally conceptual — it’s performed in a number of different ways, none of which he sanctioned.” At the other end of the spectrum, comparable to live dance, are Bach’s “Passions and Masses and Brandenburgs, this stuff that requires community passion and participation. One doesn’t replace the other. They do different things.”
By: Laura Molzahn