« School of Hard Knocked | Main | Double Lives »

Try This at Home


Twyla Moves (2021)

What did you do in 2020? While under lockdown, did you attempt to choreograph a new ballet, to be performed over Zoom, with dancers split between New York, Los Angeles, Copenhagen, Denmark, and St. Petersburg, Russia? Did that mean some directors were able to take this as a hook to put together your career retrospective, interweaving 60 years of your life and work as one of America’s leading choreographers? Well, if you did, Twyla Tharp’s lawyers will probably be in touch, because she did it first.

The hook of the new ballet is whisper-thin, except that we get to see Ms. Tharp’s working process up close, as she grouches over the time lags and offers coaching to world-class ballet dancers in their home practice spaces (Misty Copeland’s has a chandelier).

More importantly, we are taken back to the beginning of her career in ’60s New York, where you could rent an illegal loft downtown for $50 a month ($430 in today’s money). Study with teachers including Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham led to some solo shows, which led to Ms. Tharp and some friends also not quite suited for classical dance to creating “happenings,” most importantly on Brooklyn rooftops in 1965, then – things moved more slowly then – “Medley” in Central Park in 1969. They were invited to perform “Medley” in the Met, which garnered the attention that enabled Ms. Tharp to set up her own company and begin defining modern American dance with her own slouchy, dissonant, joyous style. She was one of the first choreographers to mix so-called high and low culture – i.e., choreographing a classical ballet, “Deuce Coupe,” to the music of The Beach Boys in 1973, or storming post-9/11 Broadway with “Movin’ Out,” a dance extravaganza/jukebox musical of the songs of Billy Joel. (His interview, in which he discusses fretting about the safety of the dancers, is very funny.)

But she was also more than capable of the honor of choreographing the first piece for Mikhail Baryshnikov after his defection to the West, and of defining the hippie aesthetic onscreen in the film adaption of “Hair.” Throughout her career she has walked the line between technique and emotion, high culture and pop, in a way few other creators have matched, and her cultural impact despite some career troughs in the past 15 years more than justifies the movie.

Director Steven Cantor’s attention to her daily workouts in the present moment show her technique is still excruciatingly sharp, and her absolute refusal to stop working in the face of every possible obstacle, frankly, shows how a career needs quiet determination as well as talent to persist. The editing of Lewis Rapkin moves cleanly through history, mixing the archive footage with the work done under quarantine, showing how sometimes giant leaps are the right move, and at other times the smallest gesture. Ms. Tharp has lived her life on stages of various kind, and it’s made very clear that this was done at the expense of her personal life – from earliest childhood her mother groomed her in intense dance and musical work, with the expectation that she was going to be a star. Her husband expected her career to be sacrificed to their marriage, which meant the marriage didn’t last, and her adult son Jesse Huot discusses what it was like growing up in dance studios as a sulky second fiddle to her work. We are only ever creatures of our times, but Ms. Tharp’s consistent determination to keep creating and her firm but quiet insistence on finding the right gesture for the moment is nothing short of heroic.


Post a comment

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

© 2008-2024 Critic's Notebook and its respective authors. All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Subscribe to Critic's Notebook | Follow Us on X
Contact Us | Write for Us | Reprints and Permissions | Powered by TypePad