Interview | Twyla Tharp
The legendary American dance maker on Broadway, ballet, creativity, collaboration, Scarlatti and scones.
What tasks do you delegate to your assistants?
[Bataille] and Terry [Marling, HSDC rehearsal director] are both responsible for learning the piece, knowing the piece, helping rehearse the piece, helping get the piece up, doing all of that handy-dandy stuff like knowing where [a section] really starts and what the counts really are.
As opposed to…
Kind-of sort-of. In the ballpark.
There’s always a rich dialogue in your dances between everyday movement and choreography that’s more structured. Where does “casual” fit into your recent works, specifically this one for Hubbard?
[Fred] Astaire did it better than anybody. How do you get out of a scene where you’re having coffee with somebody and suddenly you’re dancing? How do you make that transformation really, really well? When doing film work and musicals you always have to be aware that that’s an issue. And it’s a fun issue. What was the rest of that question?
I’ve noticed that your more recent concert dances seem less casual, more formal, than your early ones.
I would say this [work for Hubbard Street] is not about casual. Did you feel that it was about casual, what you saw?
Right. No, this is a formal piece. It has its small moments, because we must have our small moments of fun. But, other than that, it’s just fairly formally structured, self-contained work. It doesn’t pull the outside in anymore than Scarlatti did. Scarlatti is like Bach: They’re amazing architects. Scarlatti loved to bring in these little flavors of the day. Something would catch his attention for a split second, a little Gypsy riff, or birds singing, all of that kind of thing. He kind of embedded them verbatim, whereas somebody like Beethoven would take a bird song and build it into an amazing theme and then construct a symphonic movement on that. Scarlatti had a tune going and said, “Oh, for today, to help date this one, I’ll stick in the bird I heard today.” …I work both ways. I understand what Scarlatti’s doing and I understand trying to build something. That is, I understand the enterprise of trying to build something.
When you complete a work, how often do you feel that you’re with the piece that you envisioned from the very beginning?
Usually, the work finds its own way and takes its own path, but this one is going very close to where I imagined it to be.
Is anything in the piece for Hubbard coming from outside of these particular works of Scarlatti’s?
No. It’s [about] these works [of his].
How did you choose these specific piano pieces out of, as you say, 550 he wrote?
I used my good friend’s good ear. He had a larger selection and all I had to do was edit down his selection to build something that, while feeling spontaneous and moment-by-moment, you hear it, it’s done, it’s over, still, it’s theater, and you have to have a progression. One has to feel progression. It can’t be arbitrary. One has to feel a reason for what’s next, when it comes next, in theater.
So working on Broadway and for film affects how you approach making these pure-dance works?
Well, this word pure—we must be careful with how we use that. There’s not such a great divide between narrative and formal as some might like to somehow imply. [To server:] Oh, what did you do! Is that whipped cream? Ohh-kay, well thank you! We’ll go right ahead and—oh! It’s hot and everything! Yummy. Look! It’s all steamy. Oh, my goodness. I’m sorry, what did you just ask? I got distracted by this scone, here.
You were talking about the illusion of a divide between narrative and abstract.
If you’re putting a piece [of dance together] that has music, if the music has its own integrity and its own power, you’re responsible for making sure that the choreography does[, as well.] Storytelling situations will arise. But of course, there’s no such thing as living human beings breathing the same air and there not being a story there.
Do you find that dancers make instinctual decisions around these questions, and around interpreting your material, that feel right, or do you feel like you have to be pretty aggressively directorial, to keep it on the right track?
It depends on the dancers and it depends on what they’re asked to do. It also depends on how they’re asked to do it.
What have you learned over the years about how—
A lot. I’m in my fourth generation of dancers. That’s a lot of dancers, and it’s not only a lot of dancers, but it’s a lot of dancers from different decades, [who] think slightly differently. There are different priorities in the dance world [now], different techniques.
Do you find that the field has progressed in a generally positive direction?
I don’t judge. Judgment is not my business. Existing is my business.