Flying Blind Into Brooklyn


In the former Sunday school of Brooklyn’s Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, Twyla Tharp wraps up a press conference by getting some suits to dance. Among them are Harvey Lichtenstein and Jeanne Lutfy, chairman and president respectively of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Local Development Corporation, the organization behind a proposed 14-block BAM cultural district. The BAM LDC is spending $500,000 to renovate this big, glorious room as a home for Twyla Tharp Dance.

Between Lutfy and Lichtenstein on this January morning is the church’s Reverend David Dyson, who has tossed off his jacket and a few grinning pliés, preparatory to learning a snatch of Tharp’s The One Hundreds (a 1970 dance consisting of 100 11-second phrases that anyone, supposedly, can do). A tablet hanging on the wall behind this entertaining lesson in galvanizing community lays out the nine beatitudes. If Tharp had been around when the biblical honchos drafted these, there’d be a tenth: “Blessed are they that dance.”

Tharp hasn’t had a company, she tells me over coffee, since she regretfully disbanded the old Twyla Tharp Dance in 1988. What about that touring package with Baryshnikov? The ensemble studded with guests from the Paris Opera Ballet? The group of young modern dancers she built a rep for and sent out on the road? Those she calls “projects.”

“They’ve all had beginnings, they’ve all had ends, clearly defined. I never set out to fundraise for them. I never looked for a home for them. I never built an administration for them.” They were about putting a show together and performing it. The operation headed for Brooklyn—on display Friday and Saturday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and opening Tuesday at the Joyce—is Twyla Tharp Dance redivivus.

“We will be attempting to . . . show the public everything they want to know about what dance is.”

Tharp has always wanted it all: She’s choreographed movies, a Broadway musical, ice-skating pieces for the late John Curry, works for television including a duet for Peter Martins (in his dancing prime) and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver Lynn Swan. Her works grace the current repertories of American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. “I’m a firm believer,” she says, “that lessons learned down whatever path, if you have a central vision, will feed as tributaries into the main vein.” By the time she’d finished choreographing Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn for ABT last year, she decided that she had finally learned how to use the chorus: “The ‘BrahmsHaydn’ is truly triple counterpoint and I know everybody is tired of hearing me talk about counterpoint so I will spare you the bloody, gory details . . . but there is a true support system between the foreground, the middle ground, and the background. It took me 12 years to learn how to do it.” (Tharp can smack her lips over form the way others do over hot fudge.)

Having achieved counterpoint she can respect, and whatever other skills and insights her various projects engendered, she’s ready to commit herself to building a troupe again. Work for hire inevitably involves compromises, and compromising is not how she wants to spend the rest of her life—although some adjustments she’s more than willing to make. Ashley Tuttle, one of the six treasured members of Twyla Tharp Dance, is a principal with ABT; they’ll work around her schedule when necessary. Elizabeth Parkinson and Keith Roberts are currently in the cast of Fosse.

To hear Tharp lay out her plans for the next five years is exhilarating; it also makes you want to cross your fingers. She is, as she says with some glee, flying blind. Priding herself on paying dancers well and operating in the black, she will have to raise money, including approximately $150,000 a year to cover rent, security, electricity, maintenance, and other costs for the space on which she’s been given a five-year lease. And she hopes to cultivate a local public beyond the one that will flock to the Joyce.

She intends to invite the Brooklyn community and whoever else is interested into TTD’s new home. One hundred by 65 feet, about the size of the Metropolitan Opera stage, it’s ringed on three sides by a narrow balcony. Her goal is to have the dancers give no-frills performances in the space, starting off with two weeks in April and two in May. For admission fees she hopes to hold at $10 to $15 tops, the public can watch these as well as open rehearsals, classes, and videotaping sessions (archiving properly is one of her projects, although she has no budget for it right now). She’s also planning an intensive workshop for this summer.

“We will be attempting to . . . show the public everything they want to know about what dance is. Come into the kitchen, you’re welcome. And then go into the dining room also. I did that in Minneapolis years ago and I’ve always thought it was the right thing to do.” She’ll keep people informed via her up-and-coming Web site,

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, she’s already involving the neighborhood in her process. January performances at the Brooklyn Music School by the Kids Company of Diane Jacobowitz’s Dancewave featured excerpts from Tharp’s Deuce Coupe, a memorable piece commissioned by the farsighted Robert Joffrey for his company back in 1973 when Tharp was an upstart postmodernist. The piece, set to Beach Boys hits, is casual enough in tone to make you imagine it’s improvised. But former Tharp dancer Jennifer Way took spectators through the structure first, showing them that, say, a downstage group was improvising on an upstage group’s theme, or that one enterprising young lady was putting together, and speedily too, a bunch of phrases for arms, feet, and heads that we’d just seen separately. By the time the performance started for real, everyone understood what these kids, many of them relative beginners, had achieved.

To Tharp, operating in the red would be a sand-under-the-skin acknowledgment that the public doesn’t care much about dance. Her goal is for this company to “pay its own way and be independent by its own labors.” IMG Artists is booking the group. There are dates in Los Angeles and at Jacob’s Pillow this summer, a tour in November, and solid bookings for the first three months of 2002. At that point, she hopes to double the size of the group. In three years, she’s even thinking it could “fold into something called something like the Brooklyn Ballet Company”—an organization that, like the Joffrey Ballet under its late founder, would remount 20th-century classics and give gifted young choreographers with track records a place to work. She’s also envisioning a full-fledged school down the line. Turning 60 this year, she inevitably has an altered perspective on how to structure time wisely and prepare for what she calls the “then what.”

A week or so later, rehearsing at Hunter College, she’s showing slight signs of strain. Getting all this off the ground means time away from the work that’s her meat and drink. Leaning forward, intent on Roberts, Parkinson, John Selya, and Benjamin Bowman, how could she not be delighted with what she, and they, have wrought? Dancer Alexander Brady (who’s wearing a T-shirt suggesting we take the A train to Brooklyn) starts the tape of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet K. 581, and suddenly the big studio at Hunter seems a brighter place. When Mozart wrote the concerto, Tharp explains, “his father had just died, he was totally broke, his babies were dying. I mean, it was a very bleak time. He sat down and he wrote this piece of music and it’s like, ‘All right, let’s just keep it together here.’ ”

Her choreography matches the music’s high spirits and courtly games, but also its depths. In works like Deuce Coupe, Push Comes to Shove (1976), Mud (1977), and In the Upper Room (1986), Tharp created dialogues between classical steps and the twisty, dug-in style she had developed in pieces set to jazz, like the 1975 Sue’s Leg. In the spooling complexities of the Mozart ballet, with virtuosity shorn of its watch-this air and dancers as fluent and easy as if eight pirouettes were a wind to lean into, she’s finally merged the two styles in a happy marriage.

Tuttle isn’t here today (she’s represented by the men staring admiringly into space and twiddling their hands in the air overhead), Parkinson has got the bug that’s going around, and Bowman keeps pressing his knee gingerly, but they attack the Mozart full out—twice—and move on to the wilder and mysteriously dramatic Surfer at the River Styx, influenced by Tharp’s readings in Dionysian ritual. Watching Selya aim karate kicks at Roberts, whip into a tornado of spins, and come out feinting, I can hardly believe they haven’t rehearsed the pieces for three and a half months. To Tharp, dancers are heroes, and dancers as superb as these can practically reform the world just by letting people watch them do what they do.

The success of this new Brooklyn company will depend on goodwill, interest, and her steadfastness. She’s up for it. Balanchine is one of her heroes, and she knows well what he said of himself after accepting a position with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo back in 1944, after years of jobbing in Broadway musicals and movies: “I’m like a potato. A potato is pretty tough. It can grow anywhere, but even a potato has soil in which it grows best.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2001

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