Celebrating Twyla Tharp’s 50th year of dancing and dance-making

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“I’m home on the road,” quipped choreographer Twyla Tharp, as she took a brief break from shepherding her company on the 10-week cross-country artistic trek dubbed “Twyla Tharp -50th Anniversary Tour.”

Co-commissioned with the Ravinia Festival, along with dance presenters in four other cities, the program will be presented Nov. 5 – 8 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, before winding up its 17-city marathon with dates in Washington D.C. and New York.

Choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Designed to celebrate the hugely productive, half-century-long career of this influential dancer and choreographer – who has created 129 dances, 12 television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines – the touring program eschews the expected “retrospective of greatest hits.”

Instead, it features two new, purposefully contrasting works that evoke the spirit of some of her earlier pieces. One is “Preludes and Fugues” (set to excerpts from J. S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Volumes 1 & 2). The other is “Yowzie” (to a selection of music from “Viper’s Drag,” a compilation of classic jazz arranged by Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein), with each dance introduced by a different fanfare, both composed by John Zorn.

For her ensemble of 13 dances, Tharp, now 74, has tapped four (John Selya, Rika Okamoto, Matthew Dibble and Ron Todorowski) who have long histories with the choreographer – appearing in her Broadway shows, “Movin’ Out”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’ “and “Come Fly Away,” as well as in her various dance troupes, and in the ballet and contemporary dance companies for whom she has created new works. Newer to Tharp are Daniel Baker, Amy Ruggiero, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp, Savannah Lowery, Reed Tankersley, Kaitlyn Gilliland and Eric Otto. Santo Loquasto has designed the costumes and James Ingalls the lighting.


When: Nov. 5-7 at  7:30 p.m.

and Nov. 8 at 2 p.m.

Where: Auditorium Theatre,

50 E. Congress

Tickets: $33 – $103

Info: (312) 341-2300;


Tharp confessed to having a soft spot for Chicago and the Auditorium.

“After all, Chicago was a kind of tipping point for me,” she said. “It’s where the Joffrey Ballet danced the world premiere of ‘Deuce Coupe’ [her groundbreaking 1973 “cross-over” work that juxtaposed classical ballet with contemporary dance, all set to music of The Beach Boys]. That was a big challenge, and I became a mom at about that time, too. Plus, I still hadn’t totally given up dancing myself, although I realized that running a company, making dances and paying the bills didn’t leave me with the time to be the sort of professional dancer that would meet my own standards.”

Amy Ruggiero (aloft) and John Selya (left), with Ron Todorowski (right) in Twyla Tharp’s “Yowzie.” (Photo: Ruven Afanador)

Amy Ruggiero (aloft) and John Selya (left), with Ron Todorowski (right) in Twyla Tharp’s “Yowzie.” (Photo: Ruven Afanador)

Decades later, Tharp says not all that much has changed.

“I still go into the studio to work, and face those walls and that floor as I’ve always done. I don’t see dance in the theater; I’m not an observer of the dance world. I don’t even see much of my own work – not even ‘In the Upper Room’ [one of her masterworks, set to music by Philip Glass, which had its debut at the Ravinia Festival in 1986], which is now being performed by the Australian Ballet in China.”

Although Tharp began working before video became the ubiquitous tool for recording dance, she has been an obsessive archivist from the start.

“There was no video when I began in 1965, and film was very expensive,” said the choreographer. “But I started using video in 1969 and have accumulated about a thousand hours of it – all of it now in cold storage. I’ve often said that for a very long time dance was the only art form without an artifact, which was one reason why it remained a fringe art for so long.  That’s not true anymore, but aside from Merce Cunningham, who used it a bit early on, my generation was the first to have access to video, and I think it created a whole new world for dance.”

Describing the pieces she devised for her touring program Tharp noted: “Simply put, ‘Preludes and Fugues’ is the world as it ought to be; ‘Yowzie’ as it is. The ‘Fanfares’ celebrate both.”

Twyla Tharp’s “Preludes and Fugues.” (Photo: Sharen Bradford – The Dancing Image)

Twyla Tharp’s “Preludes and Fugues.” (Photo: Sharen Bradford – The Dancing Image)

“I used music that has lived with me for years. I played the Bach on the piano. And my first pieces in which I used music rather than silence were set to early American jazz that was hugely important to me  –  by guys like Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and Bix Beiderbecke. I wanted to see how I would deal with that music now. For ‘Yowzie’ I’ve even taken two lifts directly from my 1971 piece, ‘Eight Jelly Rolls,’ which was a crucial work in my march towards a commercial career.”

Explaining why she asked Zorn to compose fanfares, Tharp explained: “Bach never intended the ‘Well Tempered-Clavier’ to be performed as a concert piece. Those pieces were for study; they were exercises. I needed something with which to get the curtain up. And then I needed a second fanfare to get the curtain down. As for the costumes, Santo [Loquasto] suggests both ends of the spectrum: Classic, formal, simple things for the Bach piece and then extreme, out-of-control color for ‘Yowzie’.”

Asked who her greatest choreographic influences have been, Tharp names four: “George Balanchine, whose dancers, Violette Verdy and Allegra Kent, I watched in class;  Martha Graham, who I studied with during the last year she taught; Jerome Robbins, a very good friend for 20 years who always had amazingly visual ideas for the theater, and Merce Cunningham, who I  studied with for four years.”

As for how she has selected her dancers over the years she said: “I’m not sure I can express that in words. It’s both simple and complex. I have to fall in love with them.”

The author of three books – the autobiographical “Push Comes to Shove,” as well as “The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life,” and “The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together” – Tharp is currently working on a fourth, and confesses to being behind in her deadline.

As for relaxing, she laughs: “Work is my relaxation. And when I’m done it’s a relief. The thought of leaving for a vacation in the Caribbean would be hugely stressful to me.”

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