SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Earlier this week, we spoke with the master choreographer Twyla Tharp. It was before the horrifying attacks in Paris. But our conversation has due resonance. Twyla Tharp, the woman who's transformed dance in her time, is on the road under with two new pieces - "Preludes And Fugues" and "Yowzie." These pieces are in part a response to the September 11 attacks in our country. We caught up with Twyla Tharp at the Kennedy Center. It was a rainy day. She wore a hooded sweatshirt. She often had to clear her throat and reach for a tissue. She's 74 years old, lean, limber and silver as a greyhound with unblinking brown eyes behind round, owlish glasses. When she thinks a question is wrong, silly or just obvious, she corrects it. Twyla Tharp and her company have played 16 cities in three months. She also writes books and makes films, but dance is her lifeblood.
TWYLA THARP: As a career, I made the choice consciously to become a dancer. I could've become an art historian. I could've maybe become a writer. I could've become a painter. But I looked at the world clinically, and I thought well, here's an even playing field, dance. It's an even playing field. We have women pioneers here. This could work. So I knew I was a very good dancer, so I figured I had a foot up on that, as it were. And so I determined to go into that field. It was a very rational choice.
SIMON: You wrote a few months ago human movement is the basis of all art.
THARP: Oh, good for me, yes. Yes, I say that all the time. Dance is really the only art form without an artifact, which is why it lacks a deep history. It has no commodity to sell. Get real. Anything that can be scored, can be graded, can become industrialized, you know, can become an event. Dance as that sort of mysterious word, an art form, is not gradable. It's your own determination that evaluates what you do.
SIMON: Don't you, in a sense, grade people all the time?
THARP: I have to evaluate every dancer's every performance and address it in terms of the whole. But I do have, in a way, a goal. There's something that it's going towards. But I don't make it the point of the venture. The ultimate work is the point of the venture rather than the individual performance.
SIMON: This question...
THARP: In fact...
THARP: ...Excuse to interrupt, but that's an important point because one of the things that's always been very, very important to me is a group that works well together and that is a really good team, is a really good ensemble, is an entity, is a welded unity. And you don't get that by grading people.
SIMON: I mean, you write about that, about the importance of company. How do you put that together? How does it come together?
THARP: Well, slowly with time, same way any other functioning group. You build slow piece by slow piece. I mean, I've had of my own probably three major groups. The very first was all women. And we were all basically the same age, and we had just gotten out of college. And that one was relatively easy because we did it because we wanted to, end of story. No one made any money for five years, nothing. There was no rehearsal space. We used to work in condemned buildings. One of us was very bright. She was from Radcliffe. She got a, you know, condemned buildings list from the city, and that's where we would rehearse. Rats, blood dripping through ceilings - it was strange, not probably salutary. So that was the first group. The next group built itself into a sort of institution over the course of about 20 years. And one of two, actually, of the women from the original group carried over. Now, it's that kind of thing that is the beginning because those who hold genetically, as it were, the sum total of your experiences are invaluable.
SIMON: So those people are - inelegant analogy perhaps - the seedlings that have come with you from project to project.
THARP: Yes, they're more than seedlings. They are the soil. I'm Dracula; they're the soil.
THARP: I'm Dracula; they're the soil.
SIMON: I thought that's what you said.
THARP: Oh, you want to be repeat it? Is that...
SIMON: No, no, I just wanted to make certain you said...
THARP: I'm making this up, but it sounds good so far. Yes, I'm Dracula; they're the soil and the dance is the coffin.
SIMON: (Laughter) I just don't hear a lot of people say, I'm Dracula.
THARP: That's their problem - guy had his ways. And in a way, it's not a bad analogy because what I do is - you know, can I dance? Sort of. Am I in condition to do much of anything right now? Absolutely not. I don't obviously have the instrument now to evolve really demanding physical movement. For that I need - hello - younger bodies.
SIMON: Dracula does make sense.
THARP: Oh, yes.
SIMON: I was just thinking of the fang part. But no, you're - yeah...
THARP: The fang part works.
THARP: I can be pretty tough.
SIMON: I think, yeah. This question begins in history but it brings us to this piece. I guess almost every American who's a teenager or older asks where were you when the towers came down?
THARP: Oh, well, yes, of course. We were rehearsing "Movin' Out," which is the Billy Joel musical.
THARP: And we were asked by the World Trade Center to perform. There was a platform between the two towers, and we danced on a Saturday night. Sunday is always dark - or was. Monday had been scheduled but rained out and Tuesday morning was the event, what happened at 9 o'clock in the morning. So we are the last group to perform at the World Trade Center. And I was in the studio on Wednesday morning, working early because I always do. And I'm thinking what am I doing here doing a commercial project when the world's falling apart? How does this track? And I fixated on WTC I/II, and I suddenly realized that that's also the nomenclature for "The Well-Tempered Clavier," which is in two volumes - WTC I and II. Any keyboard artist who's a serious musician studies that work. And I thought about it, and I thought oh, well, look at that. Look what survived, and what is it? It's a message of containment because Bach was an incredibly-educated and profoundly thorough and very religious man who believed there was purpose to his work and that it evolved and that it developed. And in "The Well-Tempered Clavier," he creates this cycle of study. Some of them are very light. They're little street tunes, and some of them are very profound. So he really goes from a good time to death. And so I recognized in this incredible grab bag of moments, this overarching proposition that his work could contain every aspect of music. And that what was my responsibility was unity, was to find a way of unifying as many elements as I could and to make this a statement.
SIMON: Your responsibility.
THARP: Yeah. You think of your work as a bridge. You start it here, you get there, that's it. That's the responsibility to yourself as an artist. There's the responsibility to the culture.
THARP: What do you bring to the culture? Bach, obviously, brought the sacred music that gives hope in times of despair. I often say if an audience doesn't leave our performances feeling literally better, lighter, then we've somehow not succeeded here. And my best, you know, fan letters always have something to the effect of you give me hope.
SIMON: That's one of the pieces.
THARP: That's the first piece.
SIMON: Yeah. And the other, "Yowzie," has been described one, as the world as the way it is and the world as the way it ought to be.
THARP: Yeah. "Yowzie" - it's American jazz, and it begins with three songs by Jelly Roll Morton, who was the first composer whose music I actually performed to in '70, I think. I worked for five years in silence because as a musician, I know the people hear better than they see. They hear emotionally. And so I needed to learn what could movement do? So I did only movement, no music. After five years of that, I decided this is a hard way to go. I think we could use a little reinforcement here, so I started with Jelly Roll Morton.
SIMON: Let me get this straight - so five years without music.
THARP: Five years without music.
SIMON: So when you're in the abandoned buildings dripping with rats and blood...
THARP: Rats and blood to silence, finding our own heartbeat, which works. You need to know your own independent heartbeat. You need to know who you are regardless of anybody around you.
SIMON: Is a company the world as it is or the world as it should be?
THARP: A company is both. Each of the dancers has their own requirements and their own necessities, and that's their business, not mine. When we're together working, that's my business. So during that period of time, I'm responsible for constructing a vision that will hopefully communicate to an audience a common purpose here. And so that is - we like to think - a world as it ought to be because it's not real. The world as it is is the outside world. It's the world that we pass through to get to this other place.
SIMON: Ms. Tharp, thank you very much.
THARP: We're done?
SIMON: We're done.
THARP: We've only just started.
THARP: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.
SIMON: You're fascinating to listen to. Thank you.
THARP: No. You know what? I just work. And I've worked a long time, and I like to work. That's what I do.
SIMON: Well, thanks so much...
THARP: Of course.
SIMON: ...For spending the time with us.
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