“I walk into a large white room. It’s a dance studio in midtown Manhattan. I’m wearing a sweatshirt, faded jeans, and Nike cross-trainers. The room is lined with eight-foot-high mirrors. There’s a boom box in the corner. The floor is clean, virtually spotless if you don’t count the thousands of skid marks and footprints left there by dancers rehearsing. Other than the mirrors, the boom box, the skid marks, and me, the room is empty.” -Twyla Tharp
A friend recently made a post about Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, which reminded me of a post I made in livejournal a year and a half ago about the book.
Twyla Tharp is a genius. I’ve heard she’s not the nicest person in the world, but with that kind of genius, it doesn’t matter. Jerome Robbins wasn’t nice either – the cast of West Side Story once let him walk backwards into the orchestra pit because they disliked him so.
I think all the dance geniuses are like that to an extent. Balanchine was a womanizer (while not proof of such, an interesting fact: he gave all his ballerina’s diamond earrings and their own perfume scent. He said he wanted to know who was around the corner before he got there.). Robbins was so very particular about his choreography, his dancers were said to hate him. Fosse slept with all his female dancers. Twyla is a bitch. When theres that much fire and passion and unadulterated brilliance, I think its forgivable.
This post is mostly quotes from the book with not much commentary. Sorry about that – the book is in Astoria and I am in Seattle. Just know that it’s basically the most inspiring book about dance I’ve read in a while. It makes me cry, knowing her genius wrote it and I read it and maybe I can gain some genius of my own.
She, and Baryshnikov, are such geniuses that this simple little piece has me in tears. There’s no hard steps and complicated choreography there. But its a perfect piece. The song has an underlying feeling of melancholy and thats EXACTLY what they accomplish here. He’s drunk, he’s missing the woman he loves, and he’s going home. I feel like my screen should explode, watching that much talent in one place.
Dancers are totally governed by ritual. It begins with class from 10:00 am to noon every day, where they stretch and warm up their muscles and put their bodies through the classic dance positions. They do this daily, without fail, because all dancers working in class know that their efforts at strengthening the muscles will armor them against injury in rehearsal or performance. What makes it a ritual is that they do it without questioning the need.
As with all sacred rites, the beginning of class is beautiful to watch. The dancers may straggle in and mill about, but they eventually assume, with frighteningly formal rigor, their customary place at the barre or on the floor. If a principal dancer walks in, they automatically shift places to give the star the center sport facing the mirror. Of such beliefs and traditions are rituals made. Its like going to church. We rarely question why we go to church, and we don’t expect concrete answers when we do. We just know it feeds our spirit somehow, and so we do it.
Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files.
I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of are that may have inspired me.
The box documents the active research on every project. For a Maurice Sendak project, the box is filled with notes from Sendak, snippets of William Blake poetry, toys that talk back to you. I’m sure this is the sort of stuff that most people store on shelves or in files. I prefer a box.
There are separate boxes for everything I’ve ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you can do worse than to start with my boxes.
I would give most things to be able to just sit in the same room as Twyla’s boxes. I’m sure they just smell of pure genius. Pure perfection.
While this is not my favorite number from Movin’ Out, it’s still amazing. It is the only professional musical I have seen twice, let alone twice within the same week. The tour came through Seattle while I was in high school. I saw it once with my parents and once with my high school bestest, Ashlyn, for her birthday. It was amazing. I cried. I almost auditioned for the touring show when they came through six months later. But, I figured two years was a bit much to lie up my age. One year, yes, I totally would have and my Mom even gave me the go ahead. But two?
A dance doesn’t hit me whole and complete. Inspiration comes in molecules of movement, sometimes in nanoseconds. A quick combination of three steps is an idea. A turn of the foot coupled with an arm gesture is an idea. A new way of collapsing to the floor is an idea. A man grabbing a woman above the elbow is an idea. A quick combination of five steps leading into a jump is practically a mega-idea — enough to keep me going for hours.
When I’m scratching I’m improvising. Like a jazz musician jamming for an hour to find a few interesting notes, a choreographer looks for interesting movement. I didn’t start out knowing this; it came to me over time, as I realized that I would never get to the essential core of movement and dance through a cerebral process. I could prepare, order, organize, structure, and edit my creativity in my head but I couldn’t think my way into a dance. To generate ideas, I had to move. Its the same if you’re a painter: You can’t imagine the work, you can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas — when you actually do something physical.
Someone once asked me why the superstar dancers of the ballet world don’t make very good choreographers. The quick answer is that few of them have the facility to teach effectively since a lot of what they do has come so easily to them. But I think the bigger issue is generosity. Stars become stars because they have a gift for pulling the world into them; they draw people’s attention through their beauty, talent, charisma, and wiles. As a result, I don’t think they’re generally wiling to project their own artistic hopes and desires onto other people. They are used to having their own assets supported. This isn’t evil selfishness or egotism; it’s simply a part of their creative DNA, the way they are.
To be a great choreographer (or teacher), you have to invest everything you have in your dancers. You have to be so devoted to them and to the finished creation that your dancers become your heroes. It takes courage to be generous like that, to believe that the better the dancers look, the better the scene will play the the more satisfying the work itself will be. Without that generosity, you’ll always hold something back. The finished work will show it, and your audience knows it.
I love New York and part of me wishes I lived there. I know I’m a West Coast girl through and through (most specifically, a Pacific Northwest Girl, as I am so not a California Girl), but oh, to live in the city again. The energy. The people. The shopping. But mainly, Broadway. I’d LOVE to see Come Fly Away on Broadway right now. I’m hoping it’ll make its way out here next year. Anything Twyla choreographs to Sinatra is a winner in my book. I’ve seen Nine Sinatra Songs and Sinatra Suite perhaps a million times each. I adore them. They are perfect.
Do you see his face there? The pure joy? The pure genius? God, that is what dance is about. I do not have words to describe what seeing Baryshnikov dance does to me. I can be the loudest, most talkative person you know at times and he renders me utterly speechless.
Leonardo [da Vinci]’s breadth of interests was remarkable. So was his ability to bounce back from one area of study to another and find relationships between them. This refreshed him, kept alive his passion for the new. Painters, writers, musicians, we all need this breadth and passion if we’re going to keep perfecting our craft, whether or not there is approval, validation, or money coming from it.
I saw this when I worked with Baryshnikov. He was the most skilled classical dancer of his time; there was nothing he couldn’t do in the classical repertoire. Yet overriding all this ability was an enormous romantic desire to perform American dance. It’s the reason he left his country and family and defected to America. In hindsight, his success in the West looks like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t that obvious back in 1975 when he and I first met and worked together on the jazzy Push Comes to Shove. I could have easily given him a flashy dance with leaps and turns that took advantage of his great technique. It would have thrilled the audience — but it would have disappointed him. His desire to dance something new and different was overwhelming. He had turned his life upside down to fulfill that passion. So, while I did invent jumps and pirouettes for him (you have to let your thoroughbreds run at some point), I also gave him a character to play – the master of ceremonies, complete with hat – that he regarded as very American, practically vaudevillian. He took the character and somehow this great dance made himself appear as an underdog to the audience — very vulnerable, very appealing. All because of his extreme passion to dance in the way he considered American.
I saw Barishnikov once when I was in high school. To this day, it is the most remarkable concert I’ve ever seen. It was at the Moore Theatre in Seattle and our seats were near the very back row of the balcony. Even from that distance, you could see every muscle that was working, every intention behind ever step. Mindblowingly amazing. Pure genius. I cried. Seven or eight years later, I can still see it in my mind.
I brought in young talented assistants and talked more, danced less. I don’t want to paint a picture of myself as an invalid who can’t put three steps together without sagging into a heap on the floor. I still improvise alone before rehearsal, but I no longer look to create primarily from my steps. It’s a transition any physical director of a certain age has to make — from being a demonstrator to becoming an instructor. I’m not going to lie to you; it hurts to come to that realization. I became a choreographer because I longed to dance, and nobody was making the kinds of dances I felt inside me. It was brutal to recognize that my body could no longer take me where my mind wanted to go. But I surely owed it to my dancers to turn onto myself the same brutal honestly with which I viewed their efforts. You can’t make this kind of transition if you don’t see the need for it, and you won’t see the need if you don’t analyze all your work habits. When you’re in a rut, you have to question everything except your ability to get out of it.
My breakthrough arrived in a piece called The Fugue, which was a set of twenty variations on a twenty-count theme for three dancers that I took from the fugal structure of Bach’s A Musical Offering. Mind you, I didn’t actually use Bach’s music (The Fugue is performed in silence); I was still a rustic who couldn’t afford music, live or recorded. Plus, I wanted my dancers to stand on their own feet, without the support of anyone’s music. (As ever, it was all about self-relience.) But in studying the score and imagining how it translated into dance, I began to see the logic in Bach’s majestic notes, how he would take a phrase and reverse it, or invert it, or switch it from the right hand to the left, or reverse the inversion. It struck me that, given the symmetry of the human body and how its joints function, you could do the same thing with dance steps. Take three steps forward (that’s one move). Take three steps backwards (that’s another). Now take those three steps to your left, then your right (that’s two more moves). Now switch everything to the other foot. Now run it backwards, or more accurately in retrograde, like film running backwards through a projector (I imagined milk being sucked back into a bottle after being poured). Now turn the body ninety degrees to the right or left to face a new front. Now add rhythmic alterations so that all these phrases can be done in the original tempo, in double time, or in half time. Now insert a quick arbitrary movement, say three fast hand claps, into one of the basic phrases (I call this “stuffing”). Now take these moves on one person and add a second dancer, and a third, each making canonic entrances two counts after the other (think of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and how everyone enters fixed beats after one another).
It gets complicated, but in devising The Fugue, one variation a day, I discovered I had given myself a completely new way of handling movement. Reversal, inversion, retrograde, retrograded inversion, stuffing, canon, and so on. It was a vocabulary sufficiently rich with possibilities and variations that I would be using and building on it for the rest of my life.
I didn’t know if other choreographers knew this like the back of their hand and had never bothered to tell me, but it was a revelation to me. It was as if I had been painting with black, white, and red, and someone said, “Twyla, have you heard of the color blue? And green? And yellow? And all the shades of the spectrum in between?”
I could finally speak. I didn’t realize then that this was a choreographic language for the rest of my life, but I sensed it was a breakthrough.
That quote gives me chills. I don’t know exactly why, since Amy O’Neal, my modern rep/choreographer teacher in high school, talked about retrograde and different ways to transform simple eight-count phrases into whole pieces. But Twyla says it like I wish I could.
Some of my favorite dancers at New York City Ballet were the ones who fell the most. I always loved watching Mimi Paul; she took big risks onstage and went down often. Her falls reminded you that the dancers were doing superhuman things onstage, and when she fell, I would realize, “Damn, she’s human.” And hitting the ground seemed to transform Mimi: It was as though the stage absorbed the energy of her fall and injected it back into her with an extra dose of fearlessness. Mimi would bounce back up, ignore the fall, and right before my eyes would become superhuman again. I thought, “Go Mimi!” She became greater because she had fallen.