It’s easy to think of Twyla Tharp and immediately imagine her work. It is impressive. Tharp has choreographed more than 150 dances for almost every imaginable surface and location: the concert stage, parks, Broadway, the movie, the ice cream and now Zoom.
But what about the body behind the work? Tharp, 79, was a dancer first. Their magnetic way of moving – turbulent and yet not without lyrical softness – is the root of their dances. What is most revealing about American Masters: Twyla Moves, a new documentary about Tharp’s life and career, is the way she rushes past these overarching themes to highlight something else: her totally original dance body. Like the woman who lives in it, it’s both meticulous and wild. This body has courage.
“Twyla Moves,” debuting on PBS on March 26th, scans Tharp’s choreographic canon. But you’d need several volumes to get at the breadth of her work, which began in the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s before moving into the world of ballet. Her first attempt in the field, “Deuce Coupe” for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973, mixed classical and modern dance to become the first crossover ballet. She also enjoys telling stories through movement and has had shows on Broadway (“Movin ‘Out”, “Come Fly Away”) and has choreographed for films such as “Hair”, “Amadeus” and “White Knights”.
In “Twyla Moves”, directed by Steven Cantor, every dance segment – which goes back to her first piece “Tank Dive” from 1965 – is a continuous line. “It’s certainly not about me as a choreographer and it’s not really about me as a person, although we pretend we’re going in that direction,” Tharp said in an interview about the film. “It’s about me as a dancer.”
It’s also about the connection between her body and the dances she’s been doing. “She moves all the time,” said Cantor. “When she works, she moves. When she rehearses the dancers, she first practices on herself and trains for at least an hour and a half a day. “
As Tharp says in the film, “Dancers have to work every day. I have to work every day. “
And we see her in the studio to prove the point: on all fours, she warms up and rolls the top of her head in tiny circles on the floor; Once on two legs, she swings her arms back and forth and beats in the air until the camera pans to her feet, which in white, buttery jazz shoes are tapping on the surface and brushing them. She whirls around the room, kicks one leg, snaps her wrist and finally disappears from the frame – all about Sylvan Esso’s “Ferris Wheel”.
Dancing is their life. In a 1979 interview featured in the documentary, Dick Cavett asks her, “What do you do to recharge when you’ve been working hard for a long time?”
“Work harder,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, Tharp continued to choreograph during the pandemic, a process the film documents. We see her working on Zoom from afar with dancers like Misty Copeland, Herman Cornejo, Charlie Hodges and Maria Khoreva.
“They try to turn what is a disadvantage into an advantage without complaining about it much,” she said. “Right?”
More recently she has been working on an ambitious quarantine project: a ballet that Terry Riley’s “In C” plays for the Ballett am Rhein in Germany. The work for 17 dancers was due to premiere live in March, but Covid restrictions in Europe have forced the company to postpone the work. She worked from New York with dancers in Düsseldorf and put herself in her time zone to do this. “I’m actually jet lagged like I’ve traveled,” she said.
She knows it sounds extreme, that she changed her hours to match hers. “I project myself into their bodies,” she said. “You have to know what her body feels like. You need to know what hour of the day it is for your body. I had to feel that physically. “
What made all of her Zoom works possible is her archive, a collection of movement phrases and choreographies that she compares to a composer’s bench. With this, she has created teaching tapes of her dances that contain the original line-ups, with the score running alongside the choreography to maintain the right timing and movement intent. She knows that dances erode over time; She hopes that this video model can also be used by other choreographers.
“What matters to me is finding a way how I can dance, why I dance, and what the dances actually are,” she said. “Trying to develop a mechanism to do this is basically the purpose of the rest of my life.”
How – how she dances like her – is complex. It’s silky and weird, urgent and eccentric – and even readable in grainy black and white, as evidenced by the videos of Tharp improvising with her son Jesse Huot in the attic of a New York farmhouse.
These improvisations are included in the film, along with footage from her early days when she only worked with women. Rehearsing with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the American Ballet Theater shows some of her early partnership experiments. At one point in an upside-down elevator, she slips out of his grip and lands on her head. It looks painful; but it’s also charming – her yowl is full of laughter – and tells: Tharp, with the rubbery resilience of Buster Keaton, isn’t afraid to fall.
She’s a bit of a clown too, with a devotion that turns her movement into something like fluid. In a clip from “Eight Jelly Rolls,” Tharp, wearing a tuxedo halterneck overall, is alternately lively and limp; She staggers and rises – falls onto the stage like a waterfall, then twists around to spread her legs in a straddle. It looks completely unrestrained, as if she had tipped over an edge and no longer leads her body, but leads her to a place of unbridled chaos.
It may look uninhibited, but the ferocity in her dance is “fully studied,” Tharp said. “The ferocity is one thing I was able to insert because I am in control of holding it.”
Of course there is a physical articulation. But study or not, what is striking about Tharp’s dance is its wild abandonment; she seems to be dancing like no one is watching. “You have no idea that you are being looked at,” she said approvingly. “And still, look, I’m blind. I’ve been blind since I was a kid. I never knew what I looked like. I just knew how I felt. I can’t see myself in the mirror. So I never used a mirror. “
They find it inhibiting – and hopeless – to think about how others see you. “If they want to laugh at you, they will,” she said. “And rest assured, there will always be someone who can laugh at you. You might as well get over it. “
But maintaining her longevity as a dancer is another matter. That’s important to Tharp, who said her goal was to study the choreographers who came before her, including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. “I wanted to go on longer than they could,” she said. “All of our bodies get grumpy. ‘Body doesn’t get moody. You’re welcome. Could we find a way to positively experience what opportunities we have? Can you do more ‘Can we keep kicking the can down the street? “
She knows that medicine and nutrition have improved since Graham and Cunningham’s time, along with the study of wellbeing. “One of the problems for the great modern dancers is that they have developed their own style,” which resulted in overuse of the same sets of muscles. A body needs balance and, as it ages, different opportunities to build strength and endurance.
Their movement comes from many sources; It has no codified technique. “They lived within the parameters of those styles,” she said of Graham and Cunningham. “I deliberately did this not partly for the mind because the development of a style is limiting, but also for the body. So when it turns 80 it can still work. “
It seems very likely that her will. But while no one can dance like Tharp, the film shows how her dancing body has radiated to her dances – and to her dancers. As much as Twyla Moves is about – her dancing – it also honors the dancers she’s worked with over time, from Sara Rudner to Misty Copeland.
“I see them as very special,” she said. Graham said, ‘Acrobats of God.’ I wouldn’t even use the word acrobats. But they are uniquely gifted and uniquely total people to the extent that they are committed. As I try to show in this picture, I love her. “