Staging a dance performance for a group of schoolchildren in Los Angeles recently, Twyla Tharp was asked, “How long does it take to make a dance?”
“A lifetime,” was her response.
A lifetime is what Tharp has spent in the performing arts field, starting with dance lessons at age 10. Since the early 1960s, she has created and choreographed nearly 160 dances for live performances, Broadway musicals, films and even figure skating extravaganzas. She has received a Tony Award and two Emmys, and has written three books about her life and work ethics.
Now 74 and not content to simply reprise her vast body of work, she is still creating new dance pieces.
Tharp’s 50th anniversary tour opens the New Orleans Ballet Association’s new season on Saturday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. in the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Thirteen of her namesake company’s top dancers will perform two new works.
“Preludes and Fugues” is set to excerpts from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Volumes I and II.” “Yowzie” incorporates a selection of music from “Viper’s Drag,” composed by Fats Waller in 1927.
The pre-recorded version of “Viper’s Drag” that will back the performers has a distinctly local angle to it.
Over her long, storied career, Tharp has studied under and worked with some of the world’s top names in dance — Paul Taylor, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov — just to name a few. And, in the process, she became one of those top names herself. She is regarded as one of the pioneers in the “crossover” genre, combining classical ballet with contemporary dance styles.
Distinctive elements in “Preludes and Fugues,” Tharp explained, are in tribute to the styles of her mentors, Robbins, Graham, Cunningham and Balanchine.
The piece began to take shape in her mind during the September 2001 World Trade Center attack, Tharp said. Her dance company had staged what would be the last performance in the WTC outdoor plaza three days before the twin towers were destroyed by terrorists.
“At the time, we were rehearsing ‘Movin’ Out’ (a Broadway musical featuring songs by Billy Joel), and we kept hearing about WTC 1 and WTC 2, which is also how the Bach ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ is identified: volumes 1 and 2,” Tharp said. “I started listening to them and I continued down that path after the shows were done, and then, when the children in (Newtown) Connecticut were slaughtered, it was the same sort of devastation. I was thinking about what kind of creatures are we? How can we justify art when it seems that there’s this kind of bleak, dark streak to us?”
The Newtown tragedy gave Tharp the final impetus to complete the piece, which is being premiered on the 50th anniversary tour.
“So this was the thinking for the Bach piece,” Tharp said. “I describe it as being the world as it ought to be, and the other piece, ‘Yowzie,’ is the world as it is. ‘Yowzie’ deals with humor and … how we support our lives, and, basically, it acknowledges that things are not going to be traveling in a nice, straight line.’”
In a recent blog she wrote for The New York Times, Tharp further describes “Yowzie” as “the superimposition of two phrases from ‘Eight Jelly Rolls’ (a dance she composed in 1971 as a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton). Both these dances feature lots of slapstick business, Buster Keaton hijinks, vaudeville turns and pratfalls.”
Summing up her career and maverick style, Tharp noted, “When I started to work in the field, you were either a modern dancer or you were a ballet dancer, and I considered myself both. It didn’t make any sense to me to eliminate whole vocabularies of movement just because they didn’t seem to fit into a rubric or a style, so I just started making dances that use movement. One does the best one can and hopes to be of service to the people who come after.”