writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition


Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit
(a Conversation with Naima Prevots)
Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery, Washington DC
Thursday, October 9, 2003

Comment by George Jackson

Twyla Tharp talks like she dances. If you've not seen her on stage or screen, think of an Upper West Side woman in a Woody Allen movie about New York. She insists on the casual. She tries not to watch herself. She's determined to enjoy herself. She rumages, but in an orderly mind. She's smart.

The reason Tharp came to town was her new book, The Creative Habit: How to Learn It, How to Trust It, How to Use It. The visit, part of a book tour, was handled with typical Tharpian efficiency. She killed two birds that one Thursday by also speaking on National Public Radio. The Freer conversation was preceded by a short video that showed Tharp directing, choreographing, dancing by herself and dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov. She relished dancing with Baryshnikov. Then Tharp appeared in person. She looked bulky. What she wore was multicolored and multilayered, clothing for a cold night in the country. The excuse she gave for her mop cut was that this hairdo is resistant to further ruffling. She'd gotten it for the time between Yom Kippur and Thanksgiving, the high period of the tour. Naima Prevots, trim in a dark gray dress of subdued sparkle, asked Tharp the right sparkplug questions, such as: What do the chapter titles mean? What makes this book different from the one you wrote a decade ago?

This book of Tharp's is more about art than the Push Comes to Shove one, which was more about her life. Tharp thinks she couldn't have written this one when she was younger. It is "objective", which became apparent long before she said so. First, Tharp pointed out that the overall title's first three words, The Creative Habit, though an oxymoron, told a truth. Creativity has to be practiced and depends on good work habits. She spoke at length about the something-from-nothing dilemma, the fear of the blank page, the awe on entering the empty room. She demonstrated how, really, there never is nothing. The demonstration involved volunteers from the audience, mostly two at a time. She asked them to think, say and do simple things, things that had to do with their everyday lives or the here-and-now. A statistician did a sample audience count and estimated the total number of those present—about 300; she also guessed that about half of them had bought or would buy the new book. Another volunteer was directed to empty his pockets and arrange, then rearrange the items on the floor. Tharp was directorial with the volunteers, but caring. She conversed with them about their careers and asked about aspects that involved creativity. Afterwards she wanted to know how each of these people had felt during their time in the limelight. All said they felt good, some felt very good, liberated. No one said they felt a little foolish, not even the woman who had thought of saying the word "egg" and then had to enact the charade of being eggs (whole, scrambled, sunny side up) for quite a stretch of time.

Tharp's view of the creative act, thought, emotion is traditional. It is apparent that she's read The Great Books. She believes in Aristotle's beggining, middle and end. She treasures Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Dostoyevsky, Proust. She's learned by example from the great American modern dancers—the Graham, Cunningham, Taylor lineage—as well as from ballet's Balanchine, admiring especially his eye for detail. Tharp takes culture and makes it practical for herself, for today.

I found myself wondering mostly about one thing—the very traditional distinction Tharp drew between modern dance and ballet, and that she seemed to classify herself as a modern dancer although at first she'd studied tap, toe, hula, the whole shebang. Today, there are few modern dancers untouched by ballet. Many take ballet class and most modern classes incorporate ballet practices, especially the barre. The reverse isn't as true, particularly for those ballet students who supplement classical training (balancing forward on the foot, moving upward and outward with ease) by adding character work (balancing on the full foot or heel, moving down, inward and out emphatically). Character, though, is similar to some modern techniques and may even be an ancestor.

Already in the 1960s, Judson Church dancers didn't consider themselves modern dancers anymore and so that doubtful but useful term, postmodern, gained currency. Looking around today, Mark Morris (whose company was in residence at George Mason University this week) gives his modern-looking dancers a loose ballet class. Deborah Colker (whose companhia de danca from Rio was at Kennedy Center this week) used ballet steps and pointe work in the second half of 4 Por 4. The result looked like what once was called acrobatic ballet. Colker's ballet mistress is none other than the renowned Tatiana Leskova.

Tharp's evolution as a choreographer and dance director displays a distinct tropism to ballet. Not just when she's working with a ballet company, but in choosing dancers for her own groups, the emphasis seems to be ever more on those with thorough ballet training, quite classical ones as well as ballet character types. Still, if Tharp sees herself as a modern dancer that is important because modern dance, even if it can't be defined as a technique, exists as a mind set

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 3
October 13, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by George Jackson



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003