The Twyla zone grows: Prickly as ever, a cult creator expands her pioneering influence

Times Staff Writer

There’s a charge in the air at USC’s Scene Dock Theatre, where a few dozen students are crammed into raked seating, and it’s not just the hum of collegiate hormones.

Dance legend Twyla Tharp is leading a creativity workshop, in which participants perform a piece and then discuss its aesthetic problems, and Tharp’s presence has turned this amiable undergraduate talent show into something more uncertain: Will one of these aspiring artists sing a song, do a dance, and be met with the famously brusque choreographer’s withering disapproval -- a kind of highbrow “Gong Show” moment?

“You go third,” Tharp says to a young man in jeans and white T-shirt who admits he’s arrived with no work prepared. “You’ve got till then to get it together.”

She speaks more like a lady reporter in a ‘40s movie than a creativity guru.

The students offer monologues from Chekhov and Shakespeare. One plays a jazzy “My Favorite Things” on piano. Tharp asks another to sing, tap-dance and deliver a lacerating speech from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” -- all at once.


“What do you mean by pretentious?” she demands of an uncertain young singer, with the flat, confrontational tone of an impatient psychiatrist.

Somehow, though, the work gets better, the performers more confident, after as little as five or 10 minutes of her prodding, her counterintuitive questions and sharp, sometimes intimidating, observations. By the end of the four-hour session, the students are crowding around her, hugging her goodbye: Whatever her reputation as a lioness, today she’s the beloved, eccentric aunt the kids can’t wait to see again.

Tharp’s career is now miles away from her own days at Barnard College. In 1970, after five years of experimentation, she burst on the New York dance scene with “The Fugue,” a movement composition for three women (20 variations on a 20-count theme) accompanied chiefly by the sounds of the dancers’ feet on a miked floor.

“It was extremely severe,” recalls Marcia Siegel, a longtime Tharp watcher and the dance critic for the Boston Phoenix. “It had no music, it’s very intellectual, and yet it’s an enthralling dance.”

Before long, Tharp was building “serious art dances,” in Siegel’s words, atop music by the likes of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, “making movement that was personal, that was individual, that was very dancey at a time when non-mainstream people weren’t being very dancey. It was not the thing to do if you were avant-garde.”

In fact, to some viewers, this effort to reach out to audiences musically and kinetically verged on apostasy. But according to Siegel, who’s writing a book about Tharp’s work, “It was a relief for much of the dance community. It said, ‘I’m not gonna be stuck down here in the loft district, I want to have an audience, I want to be popular.’ ”

Sure enough, since then Tharp has worked not only with troupes of her own but with American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov. She’s become one of American dance’s essential figures.

Yet she’s labored, despite a few forays into television and film around 1980, in the relatively insular world of the fine arts. These days, with her recent book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” (Simon & Schuster, $25), workshops like the one at USC, and the Billy Joel musical “Movin’ Out,” a Broadway sensation now at the Pantages Theatre, she’s working on a vastly larger scale.

Tharp refuses to discuss future projects (such as a rumored collaboration with Bob Dylan) and doesn’t much like dwelling on the past, even at 63. “I don’t go there,” she says when asked about the influence she’s had across nearly 40 years as a choreographer.

But her exercises with the students, as well as reflections she offers in an interview afterward, show an artist no less determined than she was in her 20s -- but now caught between preserving her legacy and pushing rapidly forward.

“I’m still,” she says, “in an expansionist mode, shall we say.”

The ‘Movin’ Out’ phenomenon

Tharp, who grew up in San Bernardino, the daughter of the owners of a drive-in theater, hit her stride in the ‘70s and ‘80s when she “forged her own dance language, an idiosyncratic mix of Fred Astaire, George Balanchine and street cool,” as former dancer Alma Guillermoprieto puts it in her memoir “Dancing With Cuba.”

Still, whatever waves her works produced in the dance world, they existed at a tangent to the larger culture. The Tony-winning “Movin’ Out,” by contrast, has become a phenomenon.

The show -- which uses 24 Billy Joel songs to tell the story of five working-class, baby boomer friends, three of whom are sent to Vietnam -- has been running on Broadway since October 2002. Its national tour, which began in January, has set box-office records at theaters all over the country and been a critical hit as well.

“They’re doing eight shows a week,” Tharp says of the Pantages run. “That means we’re triple cast -- that’s a big, big expense. That also means there are a lot of dancers to be responsible for, care about and see develop. It’s like having a very large ballet company.” The show also has a live rock band, an orchestra and an elaborate lighting and technical crew.

“It’s not just that the forces are larger,” she continues. “The mandate can be larger. The backbone of this piece is the Vietnam vets. My reason for making this piece was to reach out to these guys and say thank you. After all these years.

“The reality is, in all of history, whether it’s Huns or Goths or Romans or whomever, no man has ever been drafted, brought back and treated like he was a hired gun. What is this insanity?”

In preparing the piece, Tharp researched the war and soldiers’ homecomings extensively, and her dancers spoke to veterans as well. In July, Tharp received the President’s Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America; she calls it “my biggest honor.”

That kind of response is hard to imagine for a modern dance piece that plays a university hall for two nights. And John Malashock, who danced for Tharp during the fruitful years of 1979 to ’84, isn’t surprised that she’s shifting her energy to bigger projects.

“She’s always looking for a bigger playground,” he says. “She likes earning money, and she likes being taken seriously commercially as well as artistically.”

Malashock, who now runs a dance company in San Diego, remembers how intense, exhausting and sometimes exhilarating Tharp was to work for.

“Her combination of a desire to push boundaries artistically with her drive to be visible in the world was unprecedented,” he says. “She liked playing with the big boys.”

The relentless expansion, though, hasn’t come without costs.

A can-do spirit

When Tharp deals with students -- playfully punching one in the stomach, urging two others to take their impromptu jazz-and-juggling show on the road -- it’s clear her sense of the arts is whimsical but above all practical and optimistic, qualities Tharp says she got from her Quaker parents and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She sees herself as a self-reliant problem solver.

“I’ve always been interested in teaching people the nuts and bolts of how things get made,” she says. She admires the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of the undergrads, which she shares. She says she wakes every morning at 5:30 and works out for two hours before laboring over pieces the way a carpenter might.

“The Creative Habit” is about rigor, rituals and the work ethic, about how creativity doesn’t appear unbidden but must be prepared for. When talking to students, she makes this unsentimental stuff inspiring.

But when Tharp discusses her current work -- her own trajectory -- her body language stiffens. Music has always been important to her, and she’s created dances to the Beach Boys, to Bix Beiderbecke, to Brahms. The days when she could base a dance around something just because it caught her ear, however, are long gone.

“In a way, it’s more limiting than what I used to have,” she says. For years, she was able “to be, if I may say so, irresponsible. To take a flying leap. Flying leaps are not quite the same now.

“Part of the problem is the cost. If you’re looking at a Broadway show, this is a massive investment. If I was doing a piece with these kids for six weeks,” she says, referring to the USC students, “it would be a very different kind of flying leap from what I feel would be appropriate or responsible in a highly commercial, very expensive format.”

She’s also confined by the expense of her company, which she reconvened in 2000 and is based in New York, but without a bricks-and-mortar space.

Working with students and budding artists, which clearly gives her enormous satisfaction, is the closest she gets to her early seat-of-the-pants style.

Is she ever tempted to go back to the freedom of the old days?

“Here’s how I look at it,” she says. “I started with essentially nothing but myself: I didn’t even have an empty space.” After locating spaces, she found five other dancers. She picks up speed as she talks.

“We were six girls, six broads in search of a space -- from Harlem gyms that were condemned, with blood flowing through them, to outside spaces at 5 o’clock in the morning before the football squad showed up and threw us out.

“I purposely started with no music, only women, no costumes to speak of, no lighting, no stage, no nothing, to just learn: ‘What is movement?’ ” Slowly, over the years, she brought in those missing elements, as well as dance’s past -- ballet -- and eventually orchestral music and choruses.

“Then, as I went along, it became about character, it became about interrelationships, it became about narrative, and it became about larger audiences.

“Then it became about Broadway. It was not, ‘I’m gonna hit Broadway.’ There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not the way I went about doing it.”

“She was always up for the next challenge, pushing for the next place, taking the next risk,” says Sara Rudner, who danced with Tharp from the mid-'60s through the mid-'80s and now heads the dance department at Sarah Lawrence.

“Her hardheaded investigations were just right for me. What she does is find remarkable dancers and push them further than they’ve ever gone. The ones she likes to work with are always up for the challenge.”

Someday, a retrospective

These days, Tharp is concerned about her legacy -- she’s been talking about it for the last few years -- but it’s clear the issue is still on the back burner. And while she’s discussed holding a retrospective next year, her 40th anniversary as a choreographer, she says she’s too busy and may wait until her 50th. “Everyone knows your 40s are tough, man.”

The delay, on both counts, comes from her brashly American love of forward motion. “One of the reasons I’ve been able to do the amount of work that I have is that I have not concerned myself with the past. I cut it off and move on,” she says. In her book, she talks about her love of the “white room,” the blank space that begins a project.

“But I have a son, and this will become his estate....We’re selling a lot of the ballets. They’re being remounted.”

She’s at the stage where choreographers typically create a trust to protect their work. “We’re developing different systems for the registration of these pieces,” she says. “Because a lot of the trusts, the Balanchine trust, for instance, are having trouble with authenticity because of lack of documentation.

“Dance is the only art form without an artifact. That can be changed -- who knows if I’ll be able to standardize something or not? On the other hand, sometimes, on a really good sunny bright day, if I’ve slept really well and had a really good meal, I’ll say, ‘Isn’t that a wonderful thing? Dance is ephemeral -- it’s just like life. It’s here, it breathes, it goes.’ ”

A fleeting art form, though, won’t pay for her retirement.

“And the reality of the matter is that a piece like ‘The Fugue’ is a very important piece for these kids to have reference to: I’ve learned these lessons, I’ve made it possible for that young lady” -- she’s referring to a student who knew the piece -- “to take hold of it and not have to learn those things for herself.”

Tharp has learned a lot since she was an undergrad. But even after four decades working as a choreographer, she says, the essential act of creating new work doesn’t get any easier.

“There are new problems. You think you can eradicate difficulties and then a new one comes along.”

She’s never been one to lament her obstacles. When she started out in 1965, for instance, there was almost no public or foundation funding for the arts.

“That was a pretty good training ground,” she says. “I’m not saying anyone should ever have to suffer. But if something is extremely difficult, and you’ve got to keep asking yourself over and over, ‘Is this really worth it?’ it helps you decide if you really want to be an artist.”