It is hard, though not impossible, to remember when Twyla Tharp was seen as something of a bomb-thrower. When Deuce Coupe premiered at New York City Center in 1973, The New York Times sputtered, “Twyla Tharp makes a piece for the Spring season of the City Center Joffrey Ballet, and the dance world is astonished. The idea of one of the most important and obstreperously radical young dancer-choreographers hooking up with a ballet company is unusual, but then, both Tharp and the Joffrey like to be first at things.” Scored to popular songs by the Beach Boys, Deuce Coupe was the first crossover ballet: classical stances mingled with stylized quotations of sixties dances like the frog, wheeling legs, and pas de deux dissolving into a little shimmy of the shoulders. The whole work is a marvel of still busyness, like a Calder mobile shifting on its axes. Tharp was 31.
Half a century later, City Center marks Tharp’s 80th birthday with Twyla Now, an ambitious program featuring dancers chosen by Tharp from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and New York City Ballet, which shaped Tharp’s career as much as Bob Joffrey’s trusting enthusiasm did.
Deuce Coupe was also Tharp’s first collaboration with City Center, but her relationship with the institution and ABT goes further back, and was formative. When Tharp arrived in New York in the early sixties, she knew plenty about ballet, tap dance, music theory, baton-twirling, German, and shorthand—the product of her mother’s dreamy, broad-minded educational program—but nothing about modern dance until she studied under Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham at ABT. In 1963 she joined Paul Taylor’s company, then left to start her own. Strapped for cash, the dancers rehearsed in condemned buildings (“gymnasiums that had half a floor missing or whatever,” says Tharp), sometimes sneaking into City Center to practice on an unattended mezzanine floor.
Tharp’s early work bore the imprint of her first teachers. A 1965 performance at Hunter College featured Martha Graham-style costumery, billowing plastic sheets and unwinding white spirals. Cunningham was, Tharp says, “an extraordinary visual education” in disciplined coordination, with “a deep sense of drama.” Graham was an education in theatrics, in a full repertoire of techniques just for falling, and informed the exaggerated comedy and pratfalls of beloved breakout works like Bix Pieces and Eight Jelly Rolls. “Clowns,” as Tharp likes to say, “are very close to God.” The City Center debut of Demeter and Persephone (1993), performed by the Graham company only a few years after Graham’s death, is both tribute and pure Tharp: pained gestures and stricken poses that recall Graham’s Clytemnestra, but set to klezmer music.
At the height of her powers, Tharp’s work shows a performative, clowning ease always in tension with formal precision, what the Times once called her “wry populism.” Her career is an inviting Mad Libs: David Byrne and Billy Joel, Milos Forman and Jerome Robbins. She stuck Mikhail Baryshnikov in a bowler and let him slink between balletic twirls and slouches in Push Comes to Shove. Once she nudged a too-busy Philip Glass into providing new work for a ballet—the heavenly clockwork of In the Upper Room—with “Look, Phil, just a little music after breakfast every day.”
Her choreography is shaped by momentum and pull, arcs that are followed through and investigated, rather than halted mid-air or flung about with artificial enthusiasm. She makes ravenous, playful use of space and perception, flinging dancers to the edge of the audience’s peripheral vision or compacting them into tight wads of motion. There is, too, a polyglot quality to Tharp’s musical vocabulary, which shifts fluently through the history of popular dance: the pony, the twist, vaudeville pratfalls. Fittingly, Twyla Now opens with Cornbread, set to music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Former Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens is a kindred spirit, another artist-historian of the American tradition, known for excavating and emphasizing African influence on American roots music. Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia’s duet, essentially a tarantella, puts a vernacular drawl on classical ballet forms.
The middle of the program consists of work pulled from Tharp’s deep archives. Pergolesi revives a splintered duet Tharp once performed on tour with Baryshnikov. Robbie Fairchild takes Tharp’s original part, dancing with stiff precision as Sara Mearns, in Baryshnikov’s role, mirrors him with lazy ease, almost behind the beat. The grounded, athletic Second Duet is adapted from a series of duets Tharp composed some thirty years ago but never performed. The work features James Gilmer and Jacquelin Harris and is set to contemporary composer Thomas Larcher’s Mumien, an uneasy staccato piece for cello and prepared piano that opens like a four-alarm fire.
Twyla Now closes with an ensemble piece set to Brahms Op. 120 for piano and clarinet, played here by viola, one of Tharp’s earliest instruments. The principal couples return, accompanied by a retinue of six talented young competitive dancers, and reprise and reconfigure elements that appear throughout the program. Brahms has always been important to Tharp. “He’s both the end and the beginning,” as she puts it: the end of the high classical tradition, and at the cliff’s edge of atonality. In hindsight, Tharp thinks she escaped the anxiety of influence that nearly crippled Brahms—so squashed by Beethoven’s genius he didn’t dare to write his own symphonies until he was in his forties—by never knowing quite enough, at the time, to be intimidated by anyone. Back in the sixties, living in her shower-less loft on Franklin Street, “I had no idea about what the avant-garde was,” Tharp says. “I don’t even know if I had heard of Graham when I came to New York. I didn’t come bearing baggage.” Brahms is both an inspiration and a warning for any aspiring Tharp: know what you’re doing, but not enough to doubt you should be doing it.
Jamie Fisher is a writer whose work focuses on culture and literary criticism. She is a staff researcher at The New York Times Magazine.