Twyla Tharp on the Road: Shut Up and Dance

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland: 2,500 seats to fill.
Credit...Nick Coppula

Twyla Tharp is writing about rehearsing, touring and creating new work, 50 years after her first dance concert.

PORTLAND, Ore. — It is less than five minutes after Wednesday’s show when I step through the curtain, mike in hand, to address the audience that remains post performance. About 1,000 people.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am here to answer your questions. What would you like to know?”

The post-curtain Q. and A. is one of the bells and whistles (along with parties and receptions) that many presenters now request to accompany a show. I agreed to the tour Q. and A.’s willingly in order to learn what our audiences are thinking.

The first question is from a youngster in the front row: “How old were you when you started to dance?”

I respond: “A baby. How old are you?” He says 8 and I assure him it’s not too late for him. Does he want to dance?


“Maybe doesn’t cut it,” I say, an affectless tone in my voice.

From the balcony, a man yells a question that sounds more like a demand for a beheading, “Why do you dance ‘the world as it ought to be’ with Bach’s music instead of to American jazz?”

Here he’s referring to my standard press statement: “ ‘Prelude and Fugues,’ danced to Bach, is the world as it ought to be. ‘Yowzie,’ danced to American jazz, the world as it is.”

Taken aback by his angry voice, I begin a long whirlaround spiel by giving context to his question.

“It is not that ‘ought’ is better than ‘is.’ Bach was a religious composer whose work can address the ideal. American jazz is vernacular music that comes from the world as we experience it.”

I suggest his tone puts a premium on “ought” and that this goes directly to the overarching point of our evening of dance, which is that with tolerance, there is room for many points of view and ways of thought. That, in fact, I do not prefer Act One’s “Prelude and Fugues” and the world as it ought to be to Act Two’s “Yowzie” and the world as it is. We live them both. And in fact Bach practiced both, also writing some music that is secular. Because of the depth of his musical understanding I call his work ecumenical. And I would wish that everyone might extend this tolerance into their everyday worlds.

He backs down, explaining that really he was only yelling because he didn’t have a mike.

“Yeah,” I say. “Right.”

Somewhere from house right, “Are you religious?”

“My family in Indiana was Quaker several generations back. I try.”

A woman in the middle, “How do you co-ordinate technique, expression, life experience.”

God, I say to myself, this really is not my night.

I muddle onward with something to the effect that technique controls our expression and life is how we learn.

It gets better.

A girl in the back asks, “How do you get over all the negative criticism?”

“How old are you?” I ask, stalling for time.

“Ten,” she says.

“How do you know I ever get negative criticism?”

She responds, “I have access to the Internet.”

A chuckle from the house; she’s got me there.

“O.K., right, there are levels of negative criticism. First comes positive negative criticism. This is where someone, hopefully kindly, but even not, can be very useful if there is a concrete suggestion about something we are doing that could be improved upon. We can use this to make ourselves better and stronger. This is not really a bad thing, right? It does not happen that often but it is not a bad thing.

“Then there is snark. Do you know snark? This is when you know all there is to know about elephants and somebody says, ‘Yeah but what about pineapples?’ and you will say ‘I’m not talking about pineapples,’ and your friend will go ‘But I am’ and carry on and on until everyone is very confused about what the subject is. That’s snark. Snark was invented in Britain by Lewis Carroll and he meant an invisible animal who is very difficult to find. Pretty stupid way to describe anything, right?

“And then comes ad hominem. This is what you kids call bullying. This means instead of talking about the art the writer talks about the artist. Not ‘Your painting is ugly,’ but rather ‘You’re fat.’ My personal favorite of these came in 1967: ‘Someone named Twyla Tharp performed at Queen Alexandra’s House last evening and threatens to do the same tomorrow.’ ”


I add, “I love being called a threat.”

Laughter and applause.

“So carry on. Just don’t commit suicide, O.K.? Next?”

Next came another doozy.

Off to my right, “Are you concerned about all the talk surrounding art these days?”

“You mean like this Q. and A.? And like the 10-minute speech before the curtain informing you of all the producer’s sponsors and what the coming attractions are?

“Like why bother with the dance in the middle? All this is a problem but tickets must be sold and this is the current format. Of course there are also advance pieces and interviews and is anybody here reading my blog for The New York Times?”

The response is not overwhelming but I explain that I figure the critics will (mostly) get it wrong so I might as well (mostly) get it right first.

I continue: “Of course, I am also extremely happy to have a bully pulpit especially since I do equate trying to get it right in art with trying to get it right in everyday life — including politics. ‘It seems to me that aesthetics and ethics are the same.’ This is something I wrote in 1971 for a lecture-demonstration that was the second section of ‘The Bix Pieces.’ This belief and practice remain intact for me today. That makes two good reasons for me to talk about art — selling tickets and explaining my values.”

A pause, and then, “But there is of course one place where language is not so helpful and that is if you are actually interested in what a dance is.”

Jerry Robbins was a very good friend for a very long time and toward the end of his life, he often said, “I won’t want to make dances when I can no longer dance.” And I always went: “C’mon Jerry. You can do it. Just say what you want to see. It’ll happen.”

And his reply was always to repeat “I won’t wantto make a dance when I can’t dance.”

Put that way dancing is really pretty simple. And very difficult. And does not broker a whole lot of conversation. As we say often in the trade, “Just shut up and dance.”

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