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Still Getting Her Kicks

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Jordan Levin is a freelance writer based in Miami

One day back in 1967, Twyla Tharp and her dancers were rehearsing at Judson Church, then New York’s high temple of the downtown avant-garde, when a janitor indignantly asked how they could dance on a Sunday. Tharp, ever righteous in the cause of art, replied by asking how dare he disturb a bunch of broads doing God’s work?

Almost 30 years later, plowing through a giant steak at a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tharp has lost none of her belief that dancing is divine work, as irresistible and relentless a calling as any saint’s. “Bottom line,” says Tharp, now one of the best-known choreographers of this century, “there’s nothing else [dancers] can do.”

“The reason I became a dancer is because I asked myself at a certain point, ‘What do you do best?’ And I said, ‘Dance.’ And then I said, ‘Well, that’s a stupid choice to make, there’s no career to be made in dance, this is really foolish.’ And I said, ‘Too bad, this is what I do best, and this is what I’m going to do.’ Because in a way I owe it, to whatever, whomever, wherever I come from, to do that. The commitment is ever absolute. And that is what faith is about.”

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Her own words give her pause. She sits back. “That was a good one. I like that. Because it’s true. It’s also very clear. And unequivocal. Which is what good dancing is.”

Starting this month, Tharp is taking her faith and her latest show on the road, in the form of a brand-new, young 13-member troupe and three new pieces. “Tharp!” as the project is called, had its world premiere in Berkeley last Friday and comes to the Wiltern Theatre on Friday and Saturday in the kickoff of a projected two-year national and international tour. It is a kind of choreographic road trip through the American psyche and through the current state of the artist’s own bullheaded and passionately creative self.

“Tharp!” also marks a return to the choreographer’s roots. For the last eight years, she has been working primarily with ballet companies, including such major classical institutions as American Ballet Theater, England’s Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. But “Tharp!” is essentially modern. There are no toe shoes (Tharp jokingly says they couldn’t afford them), and it is full of quirkily popping limbs and loose lines, an extension of the movement language she pioneered with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company starting in 1965. It is also a foray back into the role of troupe leader, which she abandoned along with her company in 1988, claiming that to maintain the ensemble required her to spend too much time as a CEO and too little as an artist.

Still, this is a return on Tharp’s own terms. The company is not permanent; in fact, it is set up to disband in two years. It’s not dependent on the grants and donations that keep most dance troupes alive; the idea is that it will be self-sustaining, that it will pay its own way through ticket sales. None of the dancers are on union contracts, there are no star salaries, rehearsal space was rented for a limited period, and overhead and administrative costs were generally kept to the minimum needed to produce the project.

Given the ongoing decreases in arts funding and what she calls the financial impossibility of running a full-time company, Tharp sees a project like this as a practical alternative. “The fact that this is a completely earned-income company, I think, is something very important to be doing in the dance world right now,” she says. She shrugs off questions of resentment. “Dance has never been a particularly easy life, and everybody knows that.”

The act of reinvention, Tharp says, is a good thing. “There’s a kind of idealism about [this project]. Optimism with some experience behind it is much more energizing than plain old experience with a certain degree of cynicism. I can see now that a great deal can be done. You just gotta do it.”

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At a run-through at City Center, a midtown Manhattan theater that is one of New York’s major dance venues, Tharp seems relaxed and in good spirits. The company is in the final stages of rehearsal, and her boyfriend, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, is here today visiting from Washington, D.C. As she goes over design sketches with designer Santo Loquasto, who is doing backdrops for one piece, and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton--both trusted collaborators who have worked with her for more than 20 years--she jokes affectionately and sarcastically.

“Tacky, tacky, tacky, bless your heart,” she says to Loquasto over his choice of a particularly shrill shade of orange. She and Shelley Washington, a longtime member of her former company who now serves as her rehearsal mistress and general right-hand woman, make a big to-do teasing Wieseltier: How can he eat a hot dog without sauerkraut? And after the first piece, Tharp saunters up to him, for all the world like a flirtatious teenager, chirping, “Hi honey, did you like it better this time?”

But during the run-through, she focuses completely. She sits stock-still; only her head bobs tersely in time to the music, and she doesn’t say a word except for a brief “good work kids” in breaks between the three pieces.

Each of the works is very different. “Sweet Fields” is a joyous, elegiac dance inspired by Shaker hymns and beliefs. The bizarrely comic “66,” a reference to Route 66, is set to ‘50s bachelor-pad music and explores the dark side of the American Dream. And then there’s “Heroes,” a dramatically sweeping, pull-out-the-stops piece to a new Philip Glass score that looks at a new concept of communal rather than individual heroism.

All were choreographed in a little more than two months of rehearsal, an extraordinary effort for everyone. Now, some three weeks before tryout performances, the dancers are putting it all together, learning how to pace things, testing and stretching themselves into the dances. It’s “just do it” time--Tharp mostly leaves them alone. They reward her by throwing themselves into the work.

They are an eclectic crew, handpicked from a variety of sources, including auditions conducted around the country. Most are primarily modern dancers, though some have ballet backgrounds. There is Shawn Mahoney, a loose, articulate dancer who worked with Tharp at the Boston Ballet, and Julie Stahl and Matt Rivera, both formerly with Feld Ballets/NY and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (which performs a number of Tharp pieces). Rivera graduated from Los Angeles High School for the Arts, and Victor Quijada, who danced with experimental modern choreographer Rudy Perez, and Todd Anderson, a jazz dance specialist, are also from L.A. Logan Pachciarz is an engaging 16-year-old from Tennessee who danced with the Nashville Ballet, slithery hipped Gabrielle Malone is from Miami, and Andrew Robinson is a charismatic performer whom Washington spotted in London. Yi Cho, who came from Taiwan in 1993, auditioned in New York, as did three 1996 Juilliard graduates: Japanese-born Toshiko Oiwa, and New Yorkers Roger C. Jeffrey and Sandra Stanton.

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All are under 30, and for them, “Tharp!” is pretty much a dream come true, even if it won’t last forever and even if when they joined they had to give themselves over body and soul, right down to signing away their right to smoke or drink.

Tharp deliberately went looking for a fresh, individualistic group that could “start all together in the basement,” and she is pleased with their earnestness, energy and talent. “They are a very appealing group,” she says. “Usually kids who are talented have the brashness to think they can do anything, but they don’t often get the chance to see how close they can come.”

If the project is inspiring for the dancers, it’s working the same way for the choreographer. Washington says Tharp, 55, has been in the studio 12 hours a day choreographing, rehearsing, and though she won’t be performing on the tour, dancing more than she has for a long time.

“This is all new, all made for them and on them,” Washington says. “I’ve been working with Twyla for 22 years. It’s been a long time since we’ve all been in the studio together. I think she’s excited about it. We all are.”

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Tharp demands extraordinary efforts from everyone she works with, although she drives herself the hardest of all. “Twyla has never asked anyone to do anything more than she could do herself,” Washington says. “If you’re gonna dance for five hours straight, Twyla will dance for 10.” But she is impatient with anyone she suspects of giving less than a full-out effort.

That definitely extends to the press. “That’s only mostly a stupid question,” she says, in response to a query on whether she feels the “Tharp!” pieces mark a new creative effort. Even when she tries to exercise her formidable charm, she can’t quite hide her what-right-do-you-have-to-ask-me-questions attitude toward reporters. After a run-through of “66,” which makes references to some of her earlier pieces, she turns an eagle eye on two of the half-dozen writers who have been invited to attend the rehearsal. “OK, pop quiz,” she announces. “What pieces did you see?” Her targets, among the most respected dance critics in America, scratch their heads and squirm nervously, with no answers forthcoming.

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Interviews are notoriously not her favorite activity. While she will admit the usefulness of advance publicity, and the value of criticism of a very high standard, she seems distinctly ambivalent about allowing anyone else to evaluate her work. “I wish that I could just tell the public what it had seen,” she says. “But I can’t. Balzac wrote his own reviews, you know.”

When she sits down for this interview, she is initially wary and challenging. Still, after a certain amount of time (and steak and chamomile tea) her passion for the dances and the ideas behind them takes over.

In recent years, Tharp has become increasingly interested in exploring spiritual and American themes. “In the Upper Room” for ABT (also to a Glass score), and “How Near Heaven,” on an all-Tharp ABT program performed in New York earlier this year, dealt with coming to terms with, even triumphing over, mortality. “Americans We” (1995), on the same ABT program, and “Red, White & Blue” reflect on American character and destiny. The three pieces in “Tharp!” make a sort of linked journey through these two areas, but they also provide a metaphor for Tharp’s own history and ideas about dancing.

“I understand things that are American, for better or worse,” she says. In “Heroes,” she offers her evaluation of our fascination with loners and outsiders. Her grandparents were Quakers and farmers, similar in many ways to the Shakers of “Sweet Fields.” When Tharp’s family moved from Indiana to California, they drove on Route 66, and landed in Rialto on that famous highway.

The music for “Sweet Fields” consists of Shaker songs, religious “shape note” singing and 18th century choral hymns by William Billings. Tharp describes it as the music of “people singing from their hearts . . . because they feel the need to say these things in this way.” The dancing, for Tharp, is pared down. Instead of bodies moving intricately in a million directions, it is full of sweeping circles and lines. One after another in a group of men is carried overhead, as if on a funeral bier; women run ebulliently in winding patterns.

“ ‘Sweet Fields’ is about people who believe that they can have a certain degree of control over life,” Tharp says. “Obviously, they can’t stop the fact that they’re going to die, but they can mold and shape the way they lead their lives. The commitment in one of these faiths or communities is really quite similar to that which the dancer makes. It’s a commitment to excellence, to community, to absolute responsibility. It’s faith, trust, all of these things.”

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If “Sweet Fields” represents the mythic, bedrock American belief that people can create themselves and be better for doing so, then “66” is the American dream turned into a nightmare--a la Tharp’s own family. Three dancers portray Tharp’s sister and twin brothers, whom she calls a “zany trio, who were very hyperkinetic, who spoke their own language, who were up to no good all the time.” (In her autobiography, she describes them climbing up chimneys, answering the door naked, flushing $3,000 down the toilet). There is a couple who seem suspiciously like her parents but whom Tharp describes as “everybody’s mom and pop from the ‘40s: infatuation, 20 years of married life, separation, can’t make it on their own, return--it’s Raymond Carver.” They play mean slapstick tricks on each other. Pachciarz trundles throughout in a giant tire, and groups of dancers nonchalantly frug, pose and kick.

It’s very funny, albeit disturbing. Tharp says she was thinking about “what the road stood for, the possibilities of individual enterprise, the optimism that a person could really go out and make a better life for themselves.” But “66” is also “a cartoon, it’s fast fast fast, entertainment--’Road Runner.’ ” Of course, in the Road Runner cartoons the ever-optimistic coyote keeps getting smashed.

“Actually Logy [Logan Pachciarz] said it best,’ Tharp says. “When he went into the tire, he said, ‘Oh my God, it’s like Donald Duck just died.’ ”

She bristles at the suggestion that “66,” with its kitschy score and references to earlier dances, might be part of the retro trend in everything from fashion to pop music. “I found that too boring for words when Warhol was doing it, so it’s really too boring for words now,” Tharp stews. “It’s recycling. I mean, how long can you recycle dirty water? It wasn’t a lot of good thinking in the beginning anyway. When kids say it’s different now because everything’s been done--that’s garbage.”

She wants to get beyond labels like retro, to something more elemental. “There’s this expression called postmodernism, which is kind of silly, and destroys a perfectly good word called modern, which now no longer means anything,” she says. “I was interested in trying to find something so fundamental that nobody would mistake it for postmodern. To go to something so basic, a very primitive energy source.”

She tried hardest to get to that raw energy in “Heroes.” In it, three male dancers go from being stalwart obstacles battered by waves of dancers to sheltering, supporting figures. It’s physically thrilling, edgy, exhausting and exhilarating. Tharp started with David Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes,” which she describes as being about the “ ‘70s and East Berlin, and a time when romanticism had clearly hit a wall, and people were still not quite willing to give up on it.” From that bankrupt vision, she tried to forge a picture of a new kind of heroism. “In the traditional sense of a heroic saga, it’s not that pretty a picture, but they do get to another place, where they can stand for something other than this kind of false idealism of the perfect happy tomorrow.”

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Searching for a more contemporary, realistic kind of hero also allows Tharp to examine yet another bit of the American mythos. “The notion of the hero as outsider, as alien, is forget it, over, done with,” she says. “That’s one of the statements of the piece. It’s not a James Dean hero. It’s not a die-in-the-Old-West, go-off-into-the-sunset-alone hero. It’s not about being against society anymore. It’s about standing there [together], holding something up. It’s not pulling away, it’s do[ing] something about it.”

Whatever else her work may be about, in Tharp’s lexicon it is also always about the act of dancing itself. The group effort in “Heroes,” for example, defines dancers, she says. Similarly, she sees the Shakers’ need to shape their lives according to their faith as a metaphor for her art.

“I think people want very much to simplify their lives enough so that they can control the things, [do the things] that make it possible to sleep at night,” Tharp says. “I think that is one of the attractions in dancing. It’s certainly one of the attractions in making dances. I often say that in making dances I can make a world where I think things are done morally, done democratically, done honestly.”

Finally, though, she comes full circle. The real rationale behind another company, another set of dances and a commitment to two years of life on the road is both easier and harder to explain: You do what you have to do.

“It takes,” she says, “an enormous leap of the imagination, or some may think it’s bullheadedness and stubbornness that creates the will to dance. But there is also a real belief: If you have no choice, do this.”

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“Tharp!” Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. $13 to $40. (310) 825-2101.

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