Interview | Twyla Tharp
The legendary American dance maker on Broadway, ballet, creativity, collaboration, Scarlatti and scones.
What do you notice about this company, Hubbard? What stands out for you about who these dancers are, individually and as a group?
One of the great divides, for me, between what’s called—what used to be called, no longer is called, I don’t know what it’s called anymore—modern dancing; and what used to be called ballet and I don’t know what it’s called anymore, either; is that ballet is hierarchical, because of where it comes from. There’s the king and the queen, who are the principal dancers; then there are the courtiers, those are the demi-principals; and then there are the peasants and that’s the chorus. In the world that my company existed in, and that so-called modern-slash-contemporary dance existed in, it tends to be more democratically distributed. “We’re all people.”
Do you ever miss having your own company?
Sometimes. What I don’t miss a whole lot is the fund-raising.
I hear that you’ve choreographed six sonatas in as many days.
Who did you talk to?
Glenn [Edgerton, HSDC artistic director], some of the dancers, heading out of the studio.
I come prepared.
Is your creative process, the sequence in which you tackle certain parts of it, pretty much the same from piece to piece?
Well, I think you’ll hopefully be encouraged to hear that the truism that we gain experience as we grow older is, indeed, true. One becomes more efficient, knows a little more about what issues are probably going to come up, and anticipates [them]. On the other hand, you don’t want to go to a place where you’re making the same piece all the time.
What are the more enjoyable or rich parts of your creative process?
I’m not sure I know how to answer that. Every moment is enjoyable.
More so than sitting in the theater, and watching the finished piece with an audience?
Oh way, way more enjoyable than that.
For you, it’s about the studio work.
Well, [staging is] a different kind of work. About this one in particular, this piece [for Hubbard] you cannot see in the studio. It’s simply too large, requiring too much space, too much of the time, to truly see in the studio. It won’t really exist, in a sense, until it goes onstage.
How do you give yourself that distance from the work in the studio?
Having looked at enough different kinds of pieces over enough years to know that there probably aren’t going to be any surprises. Center [stage] is probably going to be center, quarter’s probably going to be quarter, there’s probably going to be a crossover, the wings are probably going to be about five feet wide if you’re lucky, et cetera.
You don’t have to answer this question—I know some artists don’t like to—but I’m curious to know what choreographers have been touchstones for you over the years, or if there’s anyone who’s grabbed your attention more recently.
Darling, I read. I’m a known reader. That’s what I do with my time. I’m also a known person, still working, which means I’m in the gym, early, which means I do not go out at night, end of story. I work because I have issues and questions and feelings and thoughts that I want to have a look at. I’m not in need of, or wanting, particularly, to know what other folk are up to. I’m not one of those.
What about choreography makes it feel like the best way to look at those issues, questions, feelings and thoughts?
Well, [choreography is] time and space, right? Simultaneous looking at time and space. Nothing else is. You have not had a single bite of this scone!
It does look great. I’m going to have some, I promise.
Well, you’d better hurry up because, as you’ll see, there are very few bites left with blueberry in them.
Assuming the degree of collaboration with your dancers varies from project to project, what factors into how often you ask them for creative input?
I suppose it depends most on how long one has. For example, in the ancient days, we had unending time because nobody got paid anything. We had no bills, we didn’t have a studio and we had no costumes. We had no expenses. We had time, so that collaboration could be ongoing, and was ongoing, for years. From some of those investigations came pieces like The Fugue  and Eight Jelly Rolls , which could never have been done without people who had a deep-seated, deeply embedded sense of who the other was. The more one works, particularly in a commercial situation or like [at Hubbard]—which is not commercial, but it certainly is limited in time—the more efficient one needs to be, and the more the dancers have to tow the line. That’s not to say that I’m not always looking for somebody who has a better solution than what I came in with, but I don’t have the time to really ask the questions. I have to throw out [an idea] if somebody either doesn’t understand it, or, if they see another way around it, or have a better idea in that time frame. It’s all about time.