A Conversation With Choreographer Twyla Tharp

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THE MAKINGS OF GENIUS/Twyla Tharp 

The elevator rises and I'm in it and there's nothing I can do about that now. The extraordinary choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp is waiting at the top in her Upper West Side penthouse home/studio, and has carved out some time to record a broadcast-caliber conversation. BUT . . . my sound guy is not standing next to me. I have no idea where he is. I'm wondering what's worse: equipment that breaks when you most need it or equipment that simply doesn't show up? There's a whiff of humiliation in the air...
Oh well. It's too late to hit the alarm and try to escape between floors. Here's Twyla herself answering her door, and she couldn't be more gracious about the mishap. "Come in, have a cup of coffee. We'll just talk." 
We've got forty-five minutes. She's preparing for her third major Broadway show, "Come Fly Away" featuring the vocals of Frank Sinatra (previews begin March 1 at the Marquis Theatre), and promoting her exceptional third book, The Collaborative Habit. And brother, when she talks about collaboration, she knows what she's talking about. Past works include: The Catherine Wheel with David Byrne; Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus with Milos Forman; Movin' Out with Billy Joel; Cutting Up with Mikhail Baryshnikov; and Nightspot with Elvis Costello.
At the last moment, I initiate a less-than-broadcastable-quality recording with my iPhone. We begin at the beginning...
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Twyla Tharp


DS: Do you have an early memory of your physical coordination? 

TT: Pretty early on, because my mother started me on this extracurricular education that she developed for me, and it included early training like ballet training and tap training by the time I was four years old. But it would be hard for me to say that I can remember the idea of coordination as a small child. What I do remember is visualization of the sound of music, seeing bodies in movement in relation to how music sounded, because my mother practiced at the keyboard a lot and I also went to her lessons.  As a two year old, three year old I remember seeing things in movement.

DS: Was your mother as ambitious as you are?

TT: My mother was the first woman in the county in Indiana where we were born, in Jay County, to have a college degree. She was educated as a pianist and she wanted to concertize, but when the war came she was married, had a family, so she started teaching. She also had a strong sense of theater. My father built an indoor movie house basically because my mother loved the music--she loved the Astaire musicals and she wanted to see those things projected. And then they decided, 'Well, let's put this all up bigger -- let's do a drive-in theater.' And they left Indiana and went to southern California. I'm being a bit glib, but yes, my mother was very ambitious.

DS: I've read a lot about you and I wonder if you think it's fair to say that your mother transferred some of her artistic ambitions to her kids once she had a family. She originally had higher artistic ambitions for herself but then transferred those ambitions to her kids.

TT: Absolutely -- starting with this educational program [she set up].

DS: This is one of the themes that I've seen emerge in the world of high achievement. You look, for example, at Mozart, or at Yo-Yo Ma, and you see very ambitious parents who then transfer their ambition to their kids at very early ages.

TT: Well, Mozart is extraordinary not only in that he became virtuoso along the lines of his father, but that he had that compositional gift, that melodic gift. By the time he was four, he was doing piano concertos with harmony in the background. Some very early pieces were recently found, amazing harmony, just unbelievable. I made little dances [when I was young], but they were not being performed by orchestras with me sitting at the keyboard with my feet not touching the ground.

DS: You weren't being taken around to the kings and queens of Europe--

TT: No, I didn't make those early tours and get those queen's kisses.

DS: Of course, there are sacrifices you didn't have to make a result of that. Maybe it's nice so not grow up as a prodigy in the public's eyes as Mozart did. The glare of the public eye--

TT: It's very tough when a reputation is established that young. Mozart also had a very tough time politically, mostly because he put his foot in his mouth, but that goes with the territory. But he never really got the opportunity to maximize his gift. He had to scramble too much to get anything done. It wasn't like he was in a court position like Haydn; Haydn totally maxed out his gift completely because of his sponsorship. Mozart didn't.
Schubert was an even bigger tragedy. Schubert had arguably the same melodic gift as Mozart, but even less support. He didn't have the early exposure, never got to travel anywhere, and yet generated and amassed a body of work that grew and developed and is very profound.

DS: So do you see the same certain sort of thing in your contemporaries? You are blessed to be friends with so many ambitious and very talented people. Do you think that by and large people have what they need in our society to succeed if they have the ambition?

TT: That's kind of an unfair question because I don't have the familiarity. Certainly there have to be people who are the equivalent of Schubert -- unrecognized, massive talents who for whatever reason can't get the kind of support that comes from political behavior. In the not-for-profit world, you have to know how to work a room, who knows whom, all that kind of stuff--very political. I've had some unbelievable strokes of luck, but we also work very hard. The legend is -- and it's true -- my first NEA grant, came to me in '69 or so. We had been working with no income for essentially four years and someone suggested we fill out this application, and I said, 'Look, my dance is my application.' I got my first grant from the Endowment with that application. Because I was not interested in the politics. I was interested in doing the work.

DS: Did you learn the politics?

TT: I certainly did learn the politics when I had a company to support for 14 years. 

DS: Are you at a stage in your career now where you don't need to worry as much?

TT: I need to worry as much. I always need to worry about politics. We all need to be sensitive and think about consequences. The artist doesn't really think about consequences -- he or she does the work, stands back and looks at and thinks, "Hmm, that could have worked better like this." But as a person who needs to sell tickets to do the next work, one needs to analyze how it does or does not hit its mark.

DS: So how do you compartamentalize those things? How do you separate them?

TT: They're hard to keep separate -- what you want to do and how you're going to get it done. They do dovetail. I'm right now on the cusp of working on a third Broadway show (actually it's more than three, but in the traditional sense it's my third). And at the same time, I'm looking at the reality of my 50th anniversary which is in 2015.  And I'm saying, "Ok, this is what I'd like to do. I have this piece; I have this commission; we should bring back these pieces, do this book and these videos, and we have an archive which we need to develop and expand. Then there's the teaching projects, which are very important to us -- early materials that I made to become a better dancer, and ask, "What is dance?" I want to get that out into university curriculums and high school curriculums. One of the pieces recently went up to sixth graders in the Bronx; they were fantastic with it.
Some of this can be funded; some of it can't. And to me, it's not a question of priorities, of what's more important. It's kind of like, "You gotta get it all done -- let's go!" Some of it I can push along without much funding and some of it requires massive funding. One has to put together the structure to acquire that. 
So when you ask if everybody has equal opportunity, I have a track record. Partially it is built on a time when I had no opportunity-- those first five years, when the only opportunity was, you put on your shoes, you went outside and rehearse before there were too many football players in the park and you tried to put on a show. And you remember some of that as the best years of your life -- but everybody else reminds you that you are so wrong. (Laughs). But you try to keep in mind the sense of invention and the sense of freedom--which is very real: you don't pay any bills, you just put your shoes on and you get out there and do it.  You babysit, do stenography, in case all else fails. And I was a Kelly temp.

DS: Let's talk about those early years, because one of the themes of my book is that people are not going to be highly successful unless they learn how to respond to failure. 

TT: Yes. 

DWS: A lot of people will experience that sting of failure--

TT: It's not nice -- 

DS: And they will do anything never to feel that feeling again. I've certainly felt that. 

TT: Have you? Can we talk about that? What was the worst disaster of your life?

DS: That was going to be my question for you.

TT: You go first. 

DS: The worst? Well, let's see...I have had book ideas rejected after investing months and months time. But probably the most stinging was an editorship that I really wanted many years ago that I thought would validate who I was as a young journalist. And I didn't get it. I was so upset. I remember the anguish. Luckily, my then girlfriend, now wife, nursed me through that. I'm also just one of those personalities that just doesn't give up. I will bounce back. You hit me hard and I will bounce back.

TT: There you go, that's the only answer there is. Ultimately there is no such thing as failure.  There are lessons learned in different ways. 

DS: How can you teach the people who don't understand that? It's not an easy lesson to learn.

TT: I don't know that it can be taught in advance. I'm afraid it's a little like, "That stove is hot -- don't touch it."

DS: Can you talk about the lean years, when it was really difficult, facing challenges that seemed insurmountable?

TT: Well we created our own challenges, so whatever we came out learning, that was the reward.  There was no failure. And if I thought one of our new pieces sucked, we'd never perform them again. We'd do it once, and that was it, it was over. I did it for this reason, it didn't work, ok, so let's try this and get on with it. Some pieces are bridge pieces, from Point A to Point B, and some pieces are the soma -- they're the point. Both are equally valid, unless you want to stay at the point all the time, which is just one dot. And you do see people who are locked and frozen in an area where they're very, very accomplished, but there's not a whole lot of growth. Well, that to me is not what it's about.

DS: So you've got failure built into your process, basically, and you are your own best critic--

TT: -- Absolutely--

DS: -- and you are judging the success or failure hopefully before opening night?

TT: One doesn't like public humiliation. On the other hand, nobody can really second-guess an audience. All you can do is believe that there's a validity in what you're doing, that there's an honesty in what you're doing, and that you're curious/excited to see how people will respond to it. That's it.

DS: One of the descriptions I saw of your career was saying that you were avant-garde early on and became more mainstream, which I immediately assumed that you would reject as a characterization. How do you respond to that? Is there some truth to the notion that your ideas were more radical early on and that you developed them for a larger audience later on?

TT: I think the distinction between avant-garde and mainstream is way too facile. When I was a kid, the avant-garde to me was boring because it was just the flip side of being really successful.  And my most avant-garde piece is one I actually want to reconstruct for the 50th.  It's called "Re-Moves," and it was done at the Judson Church in 1965.  It's a rectangular sanctuary area uptown, with a clerestory stained glass windows in it and chairs along three sides. The audience comes in through the side, with a curtain. The first piece was done in the front area, on the periphery of the area.  For the second part, we moved back under the overhang so that half of it happened behind the curtain, which you couldn't see and the other half you could.  Then through the curtains came this huge plywood box that essentially choked the center of the space. And the third part was us working around the perimeter of that box, so you only saw one third of the action.  The fourth part was inside the box and it was us rehearsing the next piece; so you heard us working, you saw nothing, and there you go.  It was called "Re-Moves," for obvious reasons -- a sort of metaphor.  The thinking was that work exists in its future.  Of course, we did not take curtain calls -- we assumed the audience would have left long ago. Fine by us! 

DS: Do you think of your work and your ideas at this current stage in your career as having limited or larger appeal? 

TT: I don't. Producers do. Those that assume they know what the public wants do. I don't allow myself that assumption.

DS: So you don't allow yourself to worry about that?

TT: It depends on how many bills I have to pay.

DS: You've written about your collaboration with Elvis Costello. One of the ways I think of his work is that he's using his celebrity and his charisma and his vitality as an artist--

TT:  -- And don't forget his charm, his charm is devastating.

DS: I don't know him in person, but I'll take your word for it.

TT: He's fantastic. I love him.

DS: He's using all of his skills to bring certain types of music that might normally have a smaller audience and help it find a larger audience. Is that something you also do?

TT: Not so much. Elvis has a big capacity as host. He's a good emcee. I'm not that. If I'm doing a project, if it's for school kids, you want them to understand.  If it's for the Joffrey Ballet Company, you want that audience to understand it. If it's a project involved with scientific research then you have that mission to accomplish. But it's not me taking another area and trying to present it through myself as a conduit. It's just my working in different places.

DS: But you are thinking about the audience, obviously, whether they're young, old, educated--

TT: Yeah, and ultimately I'm always going to be a romantic in the sense that I want to something for everyone. Good luck!  Especially in such a diversified world.

DS: Do you feel responsible for your work to be properly understood?

TT: No. I'm fascinated by structure myself, and I think others are--people want to know how something is made.  That's very different than just looking at the entity and having the impact of the entity, which is the artist's experience in what they can give to people. How I made it is information in the middle which you can take and think, "that's interesting." I always try to present my accounting of the interior workings of the thing in such a way that you can take it and use it for yourself.  But the work itself has to be clear--I'm not going to be center-stage telling you what it's about.  When the curtain goes up, everything has got to be accountable.

DS: Since time is a finite resource, would it be fair to say that made sacrifices of time away from the creative part and toward the explanation part?

TT: No. I find quite a number of hours in the day and I can't make dance 42 hours a day.  I am fairly concise when I work and I work quickly because I think work is done better in a high gear than done our in a gear when everyone's exhausted. Get focused, do it! I can work productively on new material if I'm being supported; that is to say, if I have a staff and I'm not getting phone calls and e-mails, all that. I just get myself together for an hour and a half, or two, on a good day, and start to work on what's going to happen. I can work a straight four hours and then I've done a day's worth. I don't break for lunch, I never have.  And then I've done a day's worth.  That's not to say I'm washed out or anything, I always insist on maintaining a reserve for the next day, to get started in the next day for myself as well as for everybody in the room. It's foolish to blow it out on your first week of rehearsal when you've got four more to go. 
Then my contemplation is to go back in an analytical way and think about it, and often I don't understand what I've done until afterward when I look at it. When I do a lecture on a new piece before the premiere it's with a certain kind of tenderness, but after I've seen it twenty times I can say, "Oh, ok, that's what you were doing there, and that's what that is, and that's where that comes in." 

DS: What about looking back at your past work? 

TT: I always look back one dance. I refuse to look at the old pieces very much. You're always starting over again from square zero. Now with this new burden of looking at decades of work and seeing the focus at different points, I also look at it as a historian. What's in here that I can use? What's in here that informs me? That's quite interesting for me. 

DS: Well, thank you, I appreciate your time.  

TT: We still have eight minutes, keep talking!  I look forward to reading your books. What are you working on now?

DS: Whenever I finish a book, I'm always interested in moving in a new direction. Right now that means that I'm exploring memoir and also a few historical fictional narratives. Most of my work is in collaboration with one particular agent and one particular editor. The goal is to come up with something the three of us can get excited about.

TT: And these interviews that you're doing are about--

DS: This project is called "Makings of Genius."

TT: You'll be rethinking that title.

DS: Well, "genius" is shorthand for "high-achievement."

TT: I think you should go there. "High-achiever" means a little more.
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THE MAKINGS OF GENIUS is an ongoing series of conversations about the source of ambition and the process of becoming an extraordinary achiever, extending from my new book, The Genius in All of Us. My previous conversation was with the great improvisational pianist Keith Jarrett

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Transcription by Daniella De Franco
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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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