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Company Woman: Twyla Tharp 

Wednesday, Oct 7 2015
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A Twyla Tharp encounter is like an assault you'd pay your last dollar to repeat.

Whatever your access point to the acclaimed choreographer — as a dancer, a regisseur staging her ballets, a writer shotgunned through an interview, or as an audience member — the experience leaves you breathless over Tharp's ingenuity.

During her prolific career, the 74-year-old Tharp has choreographed more than 160 dances, full-length ballets, films, television specials, Broadway shows, and figure-skating routines. Decorated with a Tony, two Emmys, a Jerome Robbins Prize, and a Kennedy Center Honor, she has published an autobiography (Push Comes to Shove) and two books on process (The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit). Currently working on a fourth book, Tharp is on a 10-week cross-country trek for her 50th anniversary tour, bringing two world premieres and her infinitely capable army of 13 dancers to Berkeley for three shows at CAL Performances' Zellerbach Hall, Oct. 16-18.

Instead of a reprisal of her greatest hits, the tour's two new dances, Preludes and Fugues (set to Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier) and Yowzie, present vintage Tharp cast in nostalgia and novelty.

"People say creativity springs off the wall, but it's really not like that," she says. "Prelude is lessons learned day-by-day. It's well-rehearsed."

Having played Bach from the age of four or five, Tharp has a deep background with music.

"You have to understand, as a child I was a prodigy. I played piano, I played viola and violin for 20 years, I learned how to play drums. I will always be inside music," she says.

In a series of New York Times pieces she wrote, Tharp called Bach "ecumenical" and his WTC (Well-Tempered Clavier) "encyclopedic." (Note the parallel to another WTC: After the 9/11 attacks, Bach was Tharp's companion as she sought to understand the purpose of making art amid destruction. About selecting music, designers, or other collaborators for any project, she says, "Select wisely, then get out of the way.")

As much a collaborator with music as its taskmaster, Yowzie is her response to a jazz compilation from "Viper's Drag," arranged by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein. The production elements are more developed than for Prelude: Scenery, costumes, and follow spots lend clarity while pushing and pulling a carnival of movement, and longtime Tharp dancers John Selya and Ron Todorowski figure prominently.

Now that she's seen it onstage, she says, "It's what I thought it would be, and the audience is pretty attached to it in ways I would expect."

Tharp is a formidable woman. Fifty years of scrutinizing dancers and audiences has left her not so much boastful as plainspoken.

"Improvisation is going into an empty room with no ideas and you come out with something," she says. "Has how I use it changed over time? Listen, most dancers' lives extend from age 18 to 45, which is a long career. I'm 74. What I do is going to be very different now than 25 years ago."

Even so, she's always been synthesizing what came before. Tharp's original dances bear the marks of ballet, tap, jazz, street dance, ballroom, athletics, and martial arts, along with actions as quotidian as an accidental stumble or the woozy wandering of a drunk. Add to that the human body's propensity for surprises.

"That happens all the time. When it's positive, it's good luck; when it's not, it's bad luck. Good luck happens all the time in the studio. I say 'Thank you, Lord,' and take it. You just have to keep your eyes open."

Selecting dancers is also a wide-eyed moment.

"It's still a matter of love. They come in and I love them, or I don't. I look for intelligence, beauty, technique, commitment, a sense of adventure, a sense of humor. It's totally through what I see. I don't talk to them, because that's exactly what the audience gets to do. They don't get to talk to the dancers, either."

When she's not not-talking to dancers, she's planning — the way a four-star general plans. Making a dance involves "one of the most complex strategies other than going to war or making a movie. It's strategy. After three decades, I've acquired experience."

Every dance, she says, is a launching pad for the next piece, and reviewers have noted connections and progressions between works that span several decades.

"They're different steps," but interconnected, she says. As to whether one work stands out, she says history will make that judgment.

History will also continue to repeat itself, creating generations of children who drawn to dance only to become adults who may tend to shy away from it.

"Children all dance because they've not yet learned not to. They stop because they're taught not to move, to stand in line. To behave, basically, in one way. Genuinely, it's a kind of body brainwashing," she says.

It seems to be a new thought for her, and suddenly, Tharp is almost bubbly, her clipped voice taking on an airy quality.

"I've never thought of it that way, and I like that," she says, instantly reverting to the mean. "The reality is, the body controls the brain — but we like to forget that. We have a component that's locked into us that's lazy. It takes a lot of work to maintain the body. Very few remain on the side of the fence that goes, 'I must retain my body.' It's hard work. It takes effort."

A final inquiry revives her buoyant side, but she's still the director, the perennial choreographer, even of words.

"What is the most true thing that can be said about a 50th anniversary tour?" Tharp asks, repeating my question back to me. "I can put it in three words, but you have to put it in all caps. Ready? DANCERS ARE GREAT."

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Lou Fancher

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