The Brains of the Outfit


Twyla Tharp has been blunt about her desire to earn serious money, the kind of paychecks regularly pocketed by star athletes and pop icons. Her recent, Tony-winning Movin’ Out, a Broadway smash that melds Billy Joel’s familiar songs with her own hyperactive choreography, is just the latest in a series of career moves designed to make brilliant dancing accessible to people more at home in stadiums than in opera houses.

Now she’s spilled her secrets in a handbook called The Creative Habit, aimed at focusing artistic impulses to yield results—and to fill coffers depleted by the years of Movin’ Out‘s development. The typefaces come in large and larger, the key points are printed in red lest you miss them, and the strategies are time-tested and simple, assuming you share her bulldog determination and discipline.

Seize the day, she advises; she’s up by dawn, and works out at a boxing gym for two hours before breakfast. “I depend on my body in order to work, and I’m more productive if my body is strong.” As a way of draining clutter and distraction from one’s life and letting creativity bubble up, she suggests spending a week without mirrors, clocks, newspapers, and speaking. She goes to bed early.

The Creative Habit proffers questionnaires to complete (and Tharp’s own revealing answers), ideas for organizing time and space, exercises for overcoming blocks, and rules for getting work done. Though its context is a choreographer’s world, its principles are universally applicable and sound. Read it as you ponder your New Year’s resolutions. It could change your life.

The need of college professors to publish and to provide “readings” for classes floods my mailbox with essay collections; the best of them, like Taken by Surprise, make me nostalgic for campus life, where dance classes and the companionship of sharp theorists are readily available.

The book had its genesis in two conferences—an eponymous 1994 gathering in Berkeley that explored improvisation in all its forms, and CI25, a celebration, held at Oberlin College in 1997, of the first quarter-century of work on contact improvisation. It concludes with an epilogue written a month after 9-11. I was present at all three events, and treasure the doggedness of David Gere and Ann Cooper Albright, who managed the painstaking work of editing while teaching and raising rambunctious families.

The cover photo is of Simone Forti, who lured me, 30 years ago, into the quicksand of improvisation and set the course of my professional life; included are her essay describing her practice and another, by California choreographer Carmela Hermann, on being Forti’s student. CI pioneers Steve Paxton and Nancy Stark Smith contribute history and analysis of a form which has revolutionized dance teaching and performance. Fascinating are Constance Valis Hill’s essay on the “tap challenge,” Michelle Heffner Hayes’s piece on improvisation in flamenco, and explorations of the role of improv in the Yoruba and Bharatanatyam traditions.

Rachel Kaplan, a San Francisco writer and performer, tells of travel as the ultimate improvisation, and Victoria Marks submits a brief for choreography, taking the contrary view. In an essay titled “What’s the Score?,” Maura Keefe describes in detail a structured improvisation that turns out to be a minor-league baseball game; her deadpan observations are hilarious.

“Improvisation happens everywhere,” Keefe comments, and the editors have found it worldwide. This gleaming collection, which opens with Susan Leigh Foster’s analytic tribute to the late Richard Bull and Cynthia Novack and closes with Albright’s reflections on improvisation as a practice for dealing with violent change, belongs, alongside Tharp’s straight-shooting volume, in every dance bag and on every library shelf.

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