Twyla Tharp's 50 Years of Forward Movement

Twyla Tharp Dance
New York Times

In April 1965, Twyla Tharp spun a yo-yo, stretched forward like a ski jumper while anchored by a pair of wooden shoes and stood in an extended relevé. Such were the ingredients of her first piece, “Tank Dive,” which lasted around 10 minutes and was performed in an art studio at Hunter College.

Fifty years later, she’s still making dances.

“Woo-hoo,” she said in a deadpan voice that fooled no one. She’s excited. In any field, but especially dance, working for 50 years is a feat, and she knows it.

“Very few people make it this far,” she said over a late lunch at a restaurant near Barnard College, her alma mater, where she is now teaching and rehearsing. “And what sustains you to do that?”

For Ms. Tharp, 73, it comes down to a question, one she said she asks herself before starting any new project: What is dance?

The question will inform two lecture-performances, at Barnard on April 13 and Hunter College on April 16, that kick off Ms. Tharp’s anniversary. She will discuss “Tank Dive” as well as “The Fugue,” her 1970 breakthrough, and present a new work, set to Beethoven’s late String Quartet No. 13, Opus 130.

The new piece bursts at the seams, with a labyrinthine arrangement of steps and overlapping structures. The hero, portrayed by Matthew Dibble, may or may not be Beethoven near the end his life, but he is undoubtedly an artist. The dance ends, fittingly enough, with a fugue.

Though Ms. Tharp will begin a 10-week national tour of all new dances in the fall — it arrives at the David H. Koch Theater in New York in November — her April presentations will be in a bare-bones studio setting: no costumes, no lights, no sets. In her 1972 work “The Bix Pieces,” Ms. Tharp spoke about her beginnings and ideas about art; this new program further reveals her philosophical approach.

She says she now recognizes that “Tank Dive” was something of a manifesto in which three actions — down, out and up — explored the trajectory of movement. As she explained, “It has nothing to do with dance steps, but it has to do with a bigger purpose for dance, which is movement in the world.”

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