Twyla's Zone

Twyla Tharp is neither excited nor exhausted, she says, as she prepares to bring her rebirthed Twyla Tharp Dance to dance-legend-starved Dallas in the middle of a 25-city international tour. "I'm pleased with the dancers and pleased that audiences are responding," Tharp says without much enthusiasm, calling to mind her infamous former litany--"I don't care what the critics or the audiences think"--following her first dance creations back in 1969. "When I said I didn't care," she reconsiders, "I meant I didn't know what I was doing so why should they?" She pauses in the curt, laconic delivery of her comments, as if her PR staff in the New York City office from which she's calling has momentarily removed the gun from her head that is forcing her to meet the press. "I certainly want the audience to understand what we're doing and feel some of the validity of it," she says. "My business is pre-verbal communication. I am very concerned about communicating with the audience."

From 1969 to 1988, Tharp's company presented her part-classical ballet/part-modern dance creations to initially mixed reviews, followed closely by slobbering raves. Tharp closed her studio then and worked as a free-lance dancer/director/choreographer. She got a reputation for innovation around the world for stage performances as well as big-bang movie choreography in notable works including White Nights, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. Her ability to offset perfect classical technique with modernesque quirks--like the flexed foot and unpointed toe at the end of a long, strong, sensuous developé--remains a hallmark in the new work. "I believe there are components of a person's style from the beginning to the end," she says.

Titled for its score, a sophisticated, late piece of Mozart's music for clarinet, Tharp's first new offering, "Mozart Clarinet Quintet K.581," is lyrical and joyous. "I say it's reflective of Mozart's belief that art should control itself," Tharp says. "I wanted to honor that. Our work appears in that way, rococo and obviously technically difficult. Yet, we make no point of it. There's a certain humor in that." The second piece, "Surfer at the River Styx," scored with original music by Donald Knaack, is darker and moody at first, apparently to set up a transformation. "There is turmoil and drama," Tharp says, "but it resolves its problems and comes around to enlightenment."

After more than 30 years in the dance biz, Tharp might say the same thing about herself. "I still dance," she says, "and I make some of my material on myself, although I prefer to work with my dancers." Don't look for her to perform again--"never"--but, for all her apparent ennui over the second coming of Twyla Tharp Dance, there's no mistaking her sense of purpose. "Learning, that's it," she says. "I fight very hard not to be submerged by all the garbage in the world. There's nothing new about being cynical. I fight hard against it." She's writing her second book, a guide to the creative process, to follow her autobiography Push Comes to Shove. And after this tour? "We're working on a show that will open in Chicago in June and go on to New York in the fall," she says. "It's a Broadway musical with Billy Joel's music." She doesn't want to say more. "Do you know his music?" she asks. "It could be a song title you'd know. That's all I'm going to say."

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Annabelle Massey Helber