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If you like Twyla Tharp's story, you might also like:
Suzanne Farrell,
Harold Prince,
Trevor Nunn,
Lloyd Richards
and Julie Taymor

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Twyla Tharp in the Achievement Curriculum section:
From Dance to Drama

Related Links:
Twyla Tharp's Web Site
New York Times
American Ballet Theatre

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Twyla Tharp
Twyla Tharp
Profile of Twyla Tharp Biography of Twyla Tharp Interview with Twyla Tharp Twyla Tharp Photo Gallery

Twyla Tharp Interview

Dancer and Choreographer

June 25, 1993
Glacier Park, Montana

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  Twyla Tharp

When did you first have a vision of what you wanted to do?

Twyla Tharp: It depends on how you define vision. If it's a sense of the way I enjoyed spending time most was dancing. It was from the time I was a very small child, when I puttered around the house. I was four or five years old, I remember already having a regime. It was the way I always identified myself. If you're speaking of professionally, it was not until I was after college, until I had graduated. So, it was much, much later that I made a professional commitment to it because quite frankly, I didn't think it wise. I was my own interior parental force, and it's very difficult to justify a profession as a dancer...because it's very difficult to earn a living; because there's very little continuity, and because just when you arrive at the apex of your skills, it's time to retire. And consequently, it seemed like perhaps a not wise investment of a substantial portion of my life. But as it turned out, I decided that since it was the thing that I felt I did the best, that I owed it to all that be to pursue it. That that was what I had to do, whether it meant I was going to be able to earn a living or not.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Twyla Tharp Interview Photo

You felt there was a magnetic force there?

Twyla Tharp: You called it vision, I call it analyzing what my strengths were. It just so happened there was no market whatsoever for my strength, unless I was interested in becoming a show dancer, for which I tried, but I'm not tall enough. Also, when I auditioned for the Radio City Rockettes they said, "We love your fouettés, but can't you smile?" And things of that nature transpired between me and a commercial future. So, I managed to find a way of subsisting in the beginning by doing odd jobs, Kelly Girl temp work, selling perfume at Macy's, and any and everything to be able to sustain studying and beginning a career with a group of dancers who were willing to devote five years, really, of their lives to me, working very seriously, with complete commitment, for not a penny. This is not a pleasant route for many young people to consider, I would imagine. Either you have to be either hopelessly passionate, I guess is the word that gets devoted here, or very stupid. None of us were very stupid, we were all college graduates, actually. But we all believed that we could make an impact on something that was very important to us, which was dancing and the future of dancing, and what could be accomplished. We determined we would do that.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I get a feeling you worked with your first company almost like a scientist in a lab.

Twyla Tharp: This is true.

We thought that there were certain possibilities, in terms of physical movement, in terms of community, and in terms of what dance could address in our society. And those were the issues that we went after. And we worked with a great deal of rigor. Which is to say, we were very, very dedicated. We worked six days a week, we worked at least six hours every day. We did not perform much at all. It was really about the experience of learning and exploring and growing, for five years.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Who were the dancers?

Twyla Tharp: For the first three years there were four, and for the next two years we were six.

You started with all female dancers. Why was that?

Twyla Tharp: In those days, male dancers, as they are still today, were a rarer breed than women. A good male dancer, a male dancer frankly as strong as we were, was very difficult to come by if you couldn't afford to pay them because there was work that was available for them in all the major companies. That's what we said, but the truth of matter is, we didn't want them. Martha Graham also began her first company as all women. I think it's because in modern dance, the female force has always been a very potent one. Modern dance in this country, in any case, is generally laid at the doorstep of female creators: Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey. The next generation were men, but they spun-off from that generation of women. Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, all came from the women because it was a primarily female force, I decided that we should not, in a way, pollute the experiment. It's like mixed tennis. It's a different game.

Men and women are very different athletes, and frankly, I didn't want to deal with the male potential, I wanted to deal with the female potential. Plus which, obviously men and women bond very differently. And at that time we wanted to begin very simply. We used no costumes, we used no music, we had no partnering. We wanted just to explore movement in time and space. And in order to keep that experiment, as you've called it -- which I think is accurate -- pure, we determined that it should be sexually oriented only as women. And then after five years, the first man was introduced. And bit by bit I came to be much more interested in technical matters like partnering and so forth, until it's become fully integrated.

But our partnering, for example, evolved in an entirely different way than it would have had we had men from the beginning. Because we had to develop a strength, not only physically, but emotionally, that is very different from how most women are when they're partnered.

Twyla Tharp: I do weight training, and have for quite a while, and I'm much stronger than most women. Consequently, when I work with men, or when I'm partnered by men, I can do things no other women can do. Just in terms of counterbalances and how I support myself against him. And we can actually go into kinds of movement that haven't been available before, simply because I've strengthened myself as a woman, not because I've weakened him.

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