Interview | Twyla Tharp
The legendary American dance maker on Broadway, ballet, creativity, collaboration, Scarlatti and scones.
Would you ever seek out an environment that more closely resembles—
Sure. Who’s going to pay for it?
It isn’t possible to convince people that it’s an investment worth making?
No, because dance isn’t a commodity to be invested in. It’s “the only art form without an artifact,” is what I’ve said. Playwrights have texts, composers have scores, painters and sculptors have the residue of those activities, and dance is traditionally an ephemeral, effervescent, here-today-gone-tomorrow kind of thing. You’re an investor, right? You want something that, at the end of the day, you can sell at Sotheby’s, right? Now, that’s changing. Technology has changed that.
But, for the most part, that’s still the state of the art of dance.
Sort of, kind of. We’re starting to put up, now, a full archival website. My 50th [anniversary of dance making] is 2015 and for that, one of the activities we want is a website that’s functioning that has videos of all of the pieces, has all of the information about them, has all of the costume bibles, all of the stories, all the blah-blah-blah, for whatever the number of pieces I’ve done.… The website also has the beginnings of our educational thrust, which right now is embedded in three projects: The Fugue, The One Hundreds  and Torelli , which are early pieces I did, all of which have to do with different kinds of problems that every dancing student should know how to deal with. The One Hundreds is about muscle memory. It’s so much information, you can’t remember it cerebrally, you can only remember it through the muscles, and we’re putting that online, end of story. The Torelli is a piece that has been available to dance departments, conservatories, public schools, for about three years. It’s a piece that’s composed of units and then the lessons of the Torelli are, How you can combine [these units]? How can you pull them apart? What operations are there for reassembling so that you keep an audience engaged with a limited amount of information? And The Fugue, too, it’s got all of these techniques and fugal counterpoint, and if anybody is at all interested in movement and time and space, it’s something that everybody needs to know how to do. Right and left, flip fronts, invert, retrograde, all these things. I don’t care what type of dancer you are, you need to know how to do this, and The Fugue is about those lessons, is about learning these things. In any case, what I’m trying to say here is, for me, the website is ultimately going to become home base. We have a number of plans for wonderful things to do during that [50th anniversary] year but, ultimately, I’m really interested in trying to spend as much time as I can realizing various ways to reinterpret how people connect with dancing.
You were recently quoted in Chicago Magazine saying, “You cannot go into the Broadway world asking for heart.”
Did I say that? Hmm, I’m gonna have to think about that. I need more coffee. You can’t go to Broadway looking for heart. What did I mean? Or, can you tell me what I meant?
Because too much money is involved?
It’s not that there’s too much money involved, it’s that it’s all about money. It’s all about making money. It’s all a calculated venture. It has nothing to do with reaching out to people. It’s only intended to manipulate. It’s very manipulative.
But it hasn’t put you off. You continue to do that work.
Well, Come Fly Away, the Sinatra, is touring right now and is generating a very positive response. It employs some terrific young dancers who are being given an opportunity to work for a year and earn an income, gain some experience, and be there for me, and me for them. What’s the matter with that? Plus, they enjoy performing it. In the long listing of works, it’s a piece that may or may not end up—actually, it probably will. It’ll probably be one that continues to be performed. It’s very different from Nine Sinatra Songs , which is an extremely popular repertory piece.
You say Come Fly Away is very different from Nine Sinatra Songs and yet there is this element of revisitation to it. Are there other examples of when you’ve made something and circled back to its concepts years later, for another work?
No, this is something—I thought of it more like Dallas. Now, I don’t have a TV so I probably don’t know what I’m talking about, but it was like revisiting a group of folk from 20 years ago, asking them, Tell me more about your story, but with a new generation of dancers. It’s more information about that third couple in Nine Sinatra Songs. We only skim the surface, I mean, they only have one duet in that suite of duets. [Come Fly Away] is an investigation into the relationship that got them to that duet and then following them to the next. In a way, I suppose, it’s the back story. I think it’s an interesting way of looking at what a dance can be. It’s just a digging down, underneath. It’s like if Martha [Graham] had done Clytemnestra 2, 20 years later. What really went on in the house.
Well, I don’t have any other questions. Is there anything that we missed about you being back in Chicago, or your return to Hubbard Street?
I’m not that sentimental, as you probably have realized. Now: We can turn that tape recorder off, have another cup of coffee and have a real conversation, right?
Sure, if you like.
So what’s this, you used to dance?