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Twyla Tharp is marking her 50-year anniversary by looking ahead

Twyla Tharp settled into a restaurant on 9th Avenue after rehearsal and put away a much-needed late lunch (burger and fries, plenty of ketchup) while discussing her upcoming 50th-anniversary tour and the score for one of the dances. “Everyone understands that there’s Bach, and then there’s most everybody else,” she said, citing the composer’s “architecture, righteousness, justice, control, possibilities — the richness and variety of his imagination. He encompasses all. I call his work ecumenical. No one has more range.”

Some might say the same of Tharp. Her extensive catalog of work encompasses the brainy intricacy of “The Fugue” to her Broadway hit “Movin’ Out,” a vivid danced portrait of America during and after Vietnam that featured the songs of Billy Joel, ran for more than three years and won her a Tony Award. Although she could have celebrated the 50th anniversary of her first choreographic work, “Tank Dive,” with a retrospective, Tharp is marking the occasion by moving forward. Audiences at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills Oct. 1-3 will see the versatile choreographer’s two newest dances, which will be unveiled this week when the 10-week tour opens in Dallas.

At one of several anniversary events at Barnard College, where she spent the academic year as a distinguished guest artist, Tharp said, “it takes a lot of discipline to both retain and let go of 50 years.” But discipline has always been a hallmark of Tharp — her own rigorous work ethic and the heroic possibilities she mines from dancers. Her new dances, co-commissioned by the Wallis, are contrasting and complementary; both reverberate with ideas and concerns that have marked Tharp’s repertory while pushing ahead and providing fierce challenges for her 13 dancers.

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“Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie” resonate with connections to Tharp’s choreographic history, even though they are works created out of current concerns and inspired by a new ensemble of dancers. The first, set to 22 pieces from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” ingeniously incorporates choreographic sequences out of Tharp’s vast video archive (her “sperm bank,” as she dubbed it), culled from thousands of hours she has recorded since the late 1960s. (For Tharp, going into the studio, turning on a video camera and creating movement has long been a daily routine.)

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For “Yowzie,” she chose selections from “Viper’s Drag,” a compilation of early jazz and original compositions arranged by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein. The featured composers include Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller, each of whom inspired an early Tharp work. She has long found inspiration in this vintage jazz era, creating notable works to Bix Beiderbecke and Willie “the Lion” Smith. The madcap, vividly dramatic “Yowzie” includes allusions to some of those early dances even as it resonates with contemporary dilemmas.

Tharp, 74, found herself turning to Bach keyboard pieces that she’d known since her youth in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which precipitated questions about the reason and purpose of making art.

When 12 dancers had charged through the 45-minute “Preludes and Fugues” during a studio run-through at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, the dance located hope, terror, romance, solace and mystery within Bach’s rigorous music. As one expects from Tharp, who rejects labels and limitations when it comes to movement, the choreography encompasses a range of styles. Pristine classicism gives way to movements drawn from athletics, street dance, ballroom, martial arts and more.

“Bach’s reality is a very special place,” she said. “His fugues are always very balanced. They have huge gravitas — which is another thing about Bach that makes it so challenging to people who want to address it. There is no composer who has more mass, in the sense of structural mass, than Bach does.”

Tharp expressed pride in the range that the dancers display on this program. “Yowzie” requires more characterization and occasional clowning amid the formidable physical feats.

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“‘Yowzie’ is grounded in political incorrectness,” Tharp said. “Comedy always has been — has it not?”

Two veteran Tharp performers — John Selya, who created the volatile Eddie in “Movin’ Out” and has worked with Tharp for more than two decades, and Ron Todorowski, who also performed as Eddie and in Tharp’s two other recent Broadway productions — are primary instigators of the mayhem and chaos in “Yowzie.”

“It’s one of the huge privileges to have the two of them working together. They’re both great actors and both really good clowns,” Tharp said.

The 12 dancers who perform in each work (plus one understudy) bring a range of experience and connection to Tharp’s choreography. Two more versatile Tharp veterans anchor the ensemble: Rika Okamoto danced with the Martha Graham company, where she met Tharp 20 years ago, and was featured in “Come Fly Away” and “Movin’ Out.” Matthew Dibble was with the London-based Royal Ballet in 1995 when Tharp came there to choreograph, and he has been involved in her projects for more than a decade.

Ramona Kelley, Amy Ruggiero and Eric Otto have appeared in her Broadway or touring shows. Two tall women bring the precision and speed of the Balanchine training: Savannah Lowery is a New York City Ballet soloist on leave for the tour, and Kaitlyn Gilliland spent years with that company. Reed Tankersley, just out of Juilliard, caught Tharp’s eye when students there performed her 1979 classic “Baker’s Dozen.”

Eva Trapp and Nicholas Coppula, a married couple, performed Tharp works during their eight years with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. They moved to New York last year and have left the classical ballet world behind.

“We had enjoyed the Pittsburgh Tharp program so much, and it just seemed so organic,” Coppula said recently by phone. “So when this opportunity came up, it was a dream scenario.”

Tharp presents a very different way of working, Trapp said. “She pulls out things in you that you didn’t know you were capable of dancing, in terms of strength and technique and freedom. Performing her work is the only time I’ve ever felt completely free, in the sense that I’m not trying to fulfill all these images of what a woman should be in the dance world. In her work, it’s important to be strong and be a woman at the same time.”

Coppula cited the other attractions of working with Tharp.

“One of the very unique but also incredible things about Twyla is that she really does want everybody to be themselves,” he said. “Also, when you look at her body of work, you can see that she’s never stopped learning, and she’s never been afraid to try something new.”

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Twyla Tharp

Sept. 29: “The One Hundreds,” community event at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. Free. (310) 246.3800, www.thewallis.org

Oct. 1-3: 50th-anniversary program, the Wallis. $49-$119. (310) 246.3800, www.thewallis.org

Oct. 9: 50th-anniversaray program, Granada Theatre, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara. $43-$53. (805) 893-3535, artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu

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