With an Eye on Her Legacy

Anne Midgette is a performing arts writer in New York

A flash of long leg arcs over another dancer's back like a starburst. Three dancers pirouette like cogs, each one's turn sparked by the other, echoing the spinning themes in the music that's thundering from the grand piano at one end of the studio. One dancer is on pointe, delicate and precise and tough as if embodying the music's particular physical twist on classical tonality; one dancer is in practice slippers, her feet seeming flat and earthbound even as she pushes off them to soar aloft in another dancer's arms. The music is a live performance of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" sonata, powered out by Russian pianist Nikolai Demidenko, a virtuoso in his own right. The dance, as athletic and rigorous and intricate and forceful as the music, a mosaic of juxtapositions of moments now balletic, now modern, is the latest piece by a new company called Twyla Tharp Dance.

She's back.

Well, not entirely. Twyla Tharp isn'tdancinganymore.

"Hello, darling, what color is this?" she asks, brandishing an admonitory lock of gray-white hair. "My repertory has always been highly athletic. In terms of stamina, flexibility, speed, these dancers are the match of professional athletes. So am I, for my age bracket. But my range of movement is less than what it once was."

Don't think she's grown soft, though. "How much can you bench?" she challenges. "I can bench my body weight for three, OK? I've dead-weighted 200 pounds."

She's certainly a heavyweight in the dance world. And she's coming out swinging. In its new incarnation, Twyla Tharp Dance has been in existence for not quite a year; it debuted last July at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. But its scale and ambitions belie its youth and still-modest size.

It's not just the size and ambition of the work, although "Hammerklavier," the piece being previewed for journalists and invited guests in a Broadway dance studio under Tharp's bright, watchful eye, has both qualities in spades. It's on the second of two programs that the company will present at the Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center Thursday through Sunday. In Los Angeles, it will be paired with a world premiere, a new piece done to the music of another virtuoso musician, fiddler Mark O'Connor.

It's also the scope of Tharp's plans. Nearing 60, the choreographer is clearly concerned with preserving her legacy; and, as an institution herself, she is thrusting her fledgling company into institution-hood from the outset. She wants to establish the company in a permanent home and develop it into a repertory company, reviving major works from her past as she continues to create new work. The educational component is important, as well: teaching and reaching out to the public with classes, lecture-demonstrations, even, possibly, an archive.

For more than two decades, until it was folded into American Ballet Theater in 1988, the original Twyla Tharp Dance was at the vanguard of the art form. One reason for terminating it as an autonomous entity was that Tharp found its administrative and organizational responsibilities taking too much of her time. At ABT, when Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director, she wore the title of artistic associate for a couple of seasons, but her company's existence within the larger group didn't outlast Baryshnikov's departure. For the last decade, she's been an active freelancer, although choreographing more for ABT than any other living choreographer.

She's also formed a few pickup groups and choreographed original repertory for them. The last of these, a 13-member ensemble of young dancers called Tharp!, came to Los Angeles in 1997. But those, she claims, were all project-based. "This is the first one I regard as a company," she says. "They're in their second season of repertory, and I think of them very much as I did of the original company."

There are, however, some significant differences between the new ensemble and the original group. For one thing, the company that's coming to Los Angeles is made up primarily of ballet dancers. Having long focused on the juxtaposition and, increasingly, blending of ballet and modern techniques, Tharp has assembled a group of what she calls "the true crossover dancer. They are this dream that I conceived of beginning with 'Deuce Coupe,' " she adds (a seminal work, "Deuce Coupe," made for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973, brought Tharp's modern dancers together with Joffrey's ballet dancers on stage). "They have a deep contemporary technique; they are all great classical dancers. Unfortunately, terrific as we were, us original ones, we didn't have that."

Another difference is the nature of those dancers' involvement. At its North Carolina debut, the company had seven members, including Andrew Asnes and Francie Huber, formerly of the Paul Taylor company. In its inaugural New York season at the Joyce Theater, seven months later, however, these two dancers were no longer part of the equation. And the six dancers who are now listed on the company roster, devoted as they are to Tharp and her project, have other commitments as well. Ashley Tuttle, who performs the taxing "Hammerklavier" as if it were a walk in the park, is still very much a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater. Elizabeth Parkinson and Keith Roberts, an ex-ABT principal, are appearing in the Broadway musical "Fosse."

Still another difference is the group's lack of an administration. "We're working on developing all that," Tharp says, but she wants the infrastructure to "grow organically."

"One needs administration to be able to keep the doors open," she says. "On the other hand, the point at which one of these administrators is making three times what a principal dancer is making is a real problem for me."

In fact, she says, this was one of the things that led to her decision to close her original company. "So I'm working on finding resolve for this."

But organic growth can take awhile. When Tharp knows what she wants, she can move with breathtaking speed. Take the most recent piece she made for ABT, a large-scale and complex work choreographed to Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn," which premiered in March 2000. "This piece was done on paper, in advance, because I had about 21/2 weeks to make the piece," she says. "So the entire thing was done before I got the dancers in the studio. But," she adds, "you can only do that after you've had a lot of experience."

Tharp has proceeded at a similar breakneck pace in developing her new company. After the group's debut in July, she approached Harvey Lichtenstein, former executive director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, about finding a permanent home. Lichtenstein, who is leading a BAM organization called the Local Development Corp., devoted to the long-cherished goal of sparking growth in the neighborhood around the academy, responded handsomely. At a press conference in January, it was announced that Twyla Tharp Dance--still unknown in its new incarnation to much of the public--would be taking up residence in March in a 6,500-square-foot performance space in the former Sunday school of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

In hindsight, the rapid time line seems unrealistic, and the Brooklyn plan premature--on both sides. Although the company was supposed to move in this March, by May workers at the church hadn't even started laying the floor. It didn't matter anymore, since a May 9 New York Times article announced that Tharp was pulling out of the project. Lichtenstein made his side known in an official statement May 2. "The cost of creating the first permanent home for Twyla Tharp Dance became too costly for Ms. Tharp to pursue while also fund-raising for ongoing operational costs," it said. The implication, picked up by the New York Times article, was that Tharp, realizing the full financial burden that comes with occupying a space of one's own, got cold feet.

For her part, Tharp was so upset by the incident in general, and the Times story in particular, that one doesn't even need to ask her a question about it to get her emotional perspective--which is, she says somewhat disingenuously, that she didn't back out of anything because nothing had yet been confirmed, and she felt that the Local Development Corp. was being, at best, evasive.

"There was no lease offered," she says. "There was no lease to sign. There was no agreement between the LDC and the church. Two deacons at the church would not sign the agreement. What am I supposed to do? I mean, the Times piece slammed me for being unprofessional in a way, or naive, in not understanding I was going to have to pay bills. Yeah, hello? My old company never had a deficit. We were always even. The fact that there was no lease made it very difficult to know exactly what the rent was going to be. I'd been trying to get a lease for almost a year. Backs out, yeah, sure, of what? A deal that didn't exist."

And she asserts that the collapse of the Brooklyn deal doesn't affect her long-range vision for her company. "This has nothing to do with my making dances, supporting dancers or going out to the public with dance," she says. She is still "working to find, and will, I am sure, find," a permanent home. "It's not that I forfeited my ideals in not culminating a deal that really shouldn't have been offered."

Whatever. It's certain that the Brooklyn plans, lovely as they were, had a certain unreal, castle-in-the-air quality, as reported in the media--particularly when one considers the fact that Mark Morris, who moved his company into its new permanent home near BAM in February, had been laying the groundwork for his move for a number of years. Although Tharp avers that there never were any projected costs, because there never was a lease, the Times article reported that the expense would have run about $150,000 a year--steep for a company that's only beginning its active fund-raising.

In contrast to Morris' group, Tharp's groundwork, at the moment, lies more in her work than her actual infrastructure--and questions of archiving and preserving that work are prominent in her mind.

Hovering like warnings are examples of past choreographers whose legacy is, gradually or rapidly, eroding. "It's not just Martha [Graham]," Tharp says. "It's the Balanchine repertoire, it's the Tudor repertoire, it's the Ashton repertoire, you name it. In the case of all of these of the previous generation to mine, it is truly a tragedy, because the machinery was there to document well enough."

When she was still planning to occupy the Brooklyn space, Tharp envisioned a company that would double in size every year and eventually assume a name along the lines of the Brooklyn Ballet, devoted to preserving a range of important choreographies from the past several decades. Even without that space, the repertory concept--and revival concept--is still in place. Starting in the fall of 2002, the company plans to mount a series of retrospectives devoted to Tharp's seminal works of the past, decade by decade.

"These things have become classics, some of them," Tharp says, "and they need to be offered to the ongoing tradition. There are techniques that we developed, for example, in 'The Fugue' [1970], that are very valuable, and that kids who want to go on as professional dancers should have familiarity with. It's the same as any rules that can be studied: the rules of composition, for painting, from the Renaissance, or in music, counterpoint. There are techniques in dance that are comparable, and 'The Fugue' has a lot of that in it."

This keen sense of the importance of her past is certainly informing Tharp's approach to her new work, and not only in its use of classical ballet vocabulary (albeit with a Tharpian accent). "I'm not just replicating the past when I'm building a new piece," she is careful to maintain. At the same time, "at a certain point, I made the decision to utilize the past as a springboard for the future, as opposed to searching for that, what I always call 'white place,' that new beginning each time, discard everything you know, get to a new beginning. That became unrealistic, and impossible."

Coinciding with this sense of aesthetic continuity is a greater sense of harmony. "I don't really do oppositions anymore," Tharp says. "I don't do contrasts anymore. I used to. But now it's more about complements. It's a very different thing. Complements is that one element informs you about another element; whereas contrasts is war. And so even [when] things may seem to be disparate, there will be a connection. They reinforce, in some way."

Where the choreographer once jarringly juxtaposed modern dance and ballet, for example, exposing the dissonances between the two languages, they now coexist, in "Hammerklavier" and her other works, as part of her own, expanded vocabulary.

A risk is that smoothing out the edges can also smooth out a piece's edginess. For a dancer, the inherent risk of working to become a crossover dancer would seem to be in losing a certain virtuosity at either end of the scale.

"It's one of the down sides of what I've been responsible for here in developing this all-purpose person," Tharp concedes. 'It's true that what you have in a mall is very different from what you have in specialty shops. And it is certainly true that if you have, let's say, a classical concert pianist, chances are their jazz chops aren't as strong. But on the other hand, these guys could, most of them, get on stage and do a classical role if their life depended on it, and you wouldn't know."

Some might argue that the point of the exercise is to pursue just the kind of exclusivity of focus that the notion of a specialty shop implies, and that there's a difference between being able to get by in a role and really shining in it. But Tharp brushes off the connotations of marketability, of watering down high art, that the term "crossover" can imply.

"For me, it's range, it's expanse, it's having options, it's having the greatest possible palate. The audience has got to take care of themselves."

There's plenty of range in the Los Angeles programs. The first, the program from the company's debut last summer, pairs the "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K. 581" with a piece called "Surfer at the River Styx," danced to an original score by composer and percussionist Donald Knaack. Knaack's thing is playing on found objects ranging from pots to hubcaps, an obvious contrast to Mozart's quintessentially classical style; his live performance is also a kind of counterpart to Demidenko's rendition of "Hammerklavier" on alternate nights.

"The 'Mozart' seems to be very contained, seems to be in a world where all things go well," Tharp says. "And the 'Styx' seems to be just the opposite. But when you think about it a little more deeply, the same could be said in reverse."

"Surfer at the River Styx" is informed by, if not strictly based on, Euripides' "Bacchae," while the 'Mozart' piece is based on what Tharp calls "an amazingly glorious piece of music."

"The fact that Mozart did that particular piece of music at that particular time in his career," she says, "which was when life was truly terrible for Mozart--the courage of it, and the lack of indulgence, and the insistence on doing the best for his art no matter what--has a courage to it that to me represents pretty much the same kind of salvation that finally 'Styx' gets through to, but 'Styx' hacks away at things in a very different way. It's a post-Romantic approach to salvation. The 'Mozart' is a pre-Romantic approach to salvation."

The rigor and the lack of indulgence of the "Mozart" piece--"a kind of stringency and a kind of purity," she says, after choreographing "Hammerklavier," "Beethoven's Seventh" and "Brahms/Haydn" back to back--are elements of Tharp's approach, as well. Her best work has been characterized by a kind of uncompromising reinvention of herself, of movement, of dance and dancers.

"I do believe that if you're serious about making dance, then you're serious about making dancers," she says. "And chances are if you have any drive for originality, you're going to want to redefine what is a dancer. You're not going to want to take somebody else's dancer, some other company's definition of a dancer; you're going to want to make your own definition of a dancer."

And yet Tharp seems to be casting around somewhat for her definition of what a dancer is right now. The dancers who made up the Tharp! company were all young unknowns: At that time, four years ago, she talked about "starting all together in the basement." Her new group, by contrast, is made up of seasoned professionals with established identities of their own.

For someone who claims to be building on the past, Tharp exhibits a lot of discontinuity in her present. In fact, she does seem to be starting out from what she calls the "white place" in posing, as if they were new, questions she dealt with long ago: How should one develop an administration? What constitutes a company? In this, her new company, springing fully formed, like Athena, from its creator's head, exudes a kind of exuberant naivete, a freshness like the skeleton of a house in raw lumber, not yet covered over, insulated, made fully habitable.

The bones are good. The material is there. It remains to be seen what will become of the institution of Twyla Tharp as the choreographer, once again, reinvents herself.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°