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November 2015
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Twyla Tharp’s Top 10 Tunes in 50 Years of Dance


Twyla Tharp (Courtesy of The Richard Avedon Foundation)

[Twyla Tharp (Courtesy of The Richard Avedon Foundation)]

At age 74, choreographer Twyla Tharp is touring around the United States on her 50th-anniversary tour with Twyla Tharp Dance. Tharp has worked with some of the most influential artistic figures of the 20th century, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Bob Dylan.

She is perhaps the most widely-recognized name in modern dance because of the incredible impact she has had in the field over five decades. Tharp reflected on her 50 years as a professional dancer and shared ten of the pieces of music that have inspired her most throughout her career.

To understand how Tharp was influenced by some of the great figures in dance history before becoming a towering figure herself, one only need to look at a photograph taken of her in the garden of Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance.


[In Martha Graham’s studio garden. Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Paul Taylor, Yvonne Rainer, Don Redlich, Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, Jose Limon. ( From the New York Times, 1968, Jack Mitchell.)]

“When I look at that photograph there’s this kind of edge of  – I won’t call it despair exactly – but no one is looking overly friendly shall we say,” Tharp said candidly. “It’s not exactly like desperation, but it’s like, ‘Okay y’all, we know it’s a struggle here and we’re prepared to take it on.’ Martha is the most potent. It’s her house. And also it’s her house. I mean, come on – Eric, Paul, Merce all danced with her. I studied with her for a year. She was like this eagle standing in the middle of all of this with these eyes that are going out. I’m down right under and I’m doing second best. It’s like, ‘Yeah, Martha. I’ll back you up….’ or some such… I dunno. But I thought she was terrific, and had she not done what she did for American dance I wouldn’t be doing my work today.”

“It’s not fair to call them colleagues,” she added. “They were of a different generation. I didn’t work with Jerry. I didn’t work with Merce. I did study with Martha. I grew up a student. My mother was an extraordinary force who insisted that everything could be and should be studied. By the time I was two years of age I was going out for lessons at the keyboard and I was learning to read music by color.

“I continued with that attitude when I began to work and thought about becoming a professional in New York. I was studying with everybody and I honored it as study. I respected these people as masters who were very serious about what they did and who had a real purpose. When Martha came up the steps, I stepped back. You didn’t pass her. You stepped back. That was the attitude I took with everybody I really respected. Then bit by bit, you find what you really can’t do without that they understood.”

When Tharp first began doing her own work, she worked in silence in order to explore what she could do with dance alone.

“The point of working in five years for silence was not just to find out what can you do without music, but trying to find my own starting point,” she said. “Where could I go to find something I hadn’t already learned from somebody. And it was arduous. I didn’t know if I would find a beginning place. But I didn’t allow myself to just take this from this person and that from that person. Then everything could come in honorably. Because there’s nothing to be ashamed of learning from the best, is there?

“I never thought, ‘Oh I’m going to become rich. Oh I’m going to become known. Oh I am going to make work after work after work.’ I didn’t think any of this. I just thought, ‘Gee, is this dance? Will this hold? Will this thing we’re doing here even work?’ And then, onto the next one. We didn’t carry repertory. We were always just doing the next thing. I never thought beyond what we call ‘in the moment of it.’ I had no intention of developing a career. I just wanted to find out what dance was and if I could make a dance so strong that an audience would perceive that and believe it. ‘Was there an honesty between my communication and the observer?’ That was really the question. ‘How far can you take me?’ You have to genuinely be enthusiastic and excited about what you’re doing. You have to believe, frankly, that what you’re doing is the greatest thing on the face of the earth. That’s it. End of story.  It could become bigger or better, but right now, it’s the greatest thing.”

Since Tharp began her career, the process of creating and presenting new works ain’t what it used to be.

“Now there’s this whole substructure of getting your work presented, whether it’s working through grantors, or administrators, or, God help us, curators, or sponsors,” she groaned. “There wasn’t any of that. If you wanted to do a performance, you found an empty space, you made an attack, you did it, and you got out. You didn’t have to spend six months getting the money together, getting the permits, getting the personnel. You want chairs set up? Set ‘em up!”

In her fifty years of creating new work as a choreographer, Tharp has explored music from a wide range of artists from Bach to Bob Dylan. Here are 10 of the pieces of music that have inspired her most in her career.


  1. Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” [Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon]
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    He didn’t like to sing it. He sang it as little as he could. Everyone wanted to hear it because it was an anthem, but it was hard on his voice. The ending of it was a real reach and a stretch, and he always went for it. “That’s Life” is used in Nine Sinatra Songs – I use it in two versions that are like 20 years apart, one of his last ones and the one from Madison Square Garden. The guy is just phenomenal. He goes for broke in a very special way, but he doesn’t sound like somebody crashing through a wall. But he’s really putting everything he’s got into it.

  2. Fats Waller’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” [Jimmy McHugh, music, and Dorothy Fields lyrics]
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    This was for my solo in Sue’s Leg. It was done in 73-4-5, something like that. It goes (sings) “I can’t give you anything but love… hm hm hm hm… baby-y-y-!” It’s great, right? Waller had such a kind of…I won’t say bitter sense of humor, but the guy had been around the block a few times. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek there in that song, which I enjoy. But on the other hand there’s also a huge amount of sincerity in it.I used it in Sue’s Leg twice. I played it back-to-back. The first time was for a quartet, the second was for a solo. It’s all about phrasing – both the Waller, the way he sings it, and the way Sinatra sings “That’s Life” – it’s all about the phrasing and the choices they make when the words are just about to come out.

  3. In The Upper Room (Philip Glass)
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    Bom-ba-ba YA-da-da” See? I know them all by heart. That one was a commission. Phil did a terrific job on it, it’s still performed a lot. It’s just recently been in China – the Australian Ballet did it there. It’s as we say “a keeper.”  Dancers love Glass because his music is very rhythmic, it’s very percussive. He also has a really good sense of theater. He started with a group called Mabou Mines, which was a theater group. And he writes opera. He has a sense of progression. It’s not just flat out, dead minimalism. I mean, it’s going somewhere.

  4. Prelude in C Major, The Well-Tempered Clavier (JS Bach)
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    It’s one of those amazingly, seemingly simple things that’s very profound. When something can be absolutely truthful and very simple, that’s a combination that’s not really to be beat. The other thing that’s interesting to me is that sure, it’s just a simple chord progression. But the broken chords say, to me, that he wasn’t thinking of the keyboard when he wrote it. The piece is for the keyboard, but in a way it was for the lute.

    There must’ve been a stringed instrument that he was thinking of because a lot of the preludes and fugues were taken from other works that he had done. When you hear this on the keyboard, you also see in a way the strings that are under the cover of the instrument. It’s plucking of the strings. Hello, that’s what it is. It’s pretty basic.

    The sophistication in Bach’s composition is unmatched, and so is the range of choices that he has available to him. That’s been one of the challenges for me and one of the reasons why I chose to work with it on this 50th anniversary tour, which is a summation, if you will, of what I’ve learned working in 50 years.

    I mean, Bach doesn’t need my help in explaining what he’s doing. But to find a dialogue with his work, especially with the simplicity of the C major, to some of more complex 3-4-5 voice fugues is like, “Okay, all right. What have you got to say about this?” And sometimes, it’s very much a comment on how he sought to structure it. Sometimes it’s something that he suggested but didn’t quite go there.

    But I always like to think when I am working with a great piece of music, “Hello, what would the composer think if he were watching this?” It has to be respectful and it has to be comprehensive to his world. It has to live within his thought pattern.

  5. Symphony No. 82, C Major (Haydn)
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    I don’t know quite why it is that Haydn was a composer – not was a was the composer who, as a young worker, was most accessible to me. Before Bach, before Brahms, before Mozart, Haydn was the one I could recognize structurally and also from a kind of energy point of view. It’s Sturm und Drang basically.He was at a turning point, he was really pushing towards the Romantic. Mozart did it in a very different way. But Haydn took it straight on and gave it a good shake. That’s probably what I responded to was this kind of volcanic power that’s being contained in this very classical world. He’s suppressing this thing that’s ready to explode at any moment. Of course, it was very political as well. But it’s that inherent energy in his music that made it possible for me to use it as a very young choreographer.

  6. Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (Brahms)
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    Brahms was too smart for his own good, what can I tell you? He was the end of an era. He knew it all. He had been through it all. And he knew he had to tear it apart but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He was still 19th century, and yet he knew that world was played out.I really love Brahms, but he can really work things around like clouds passing. It’s like, “Brahms, where’d you come from just now? Where are we going exactly?” And he goes, “Well, we’re sort of churning here, because guess what? We are dog paddling.” Because musically he was ready to break through, but he just couldn’t. And you know, he’s great. The late clarinet works break your heart.I’ve done three or four sets of Brahms variations. He was the end of the line. He knew the Diabelli, he knew the Goldberg, and he could do some fairly adventuresome thinking about it all. I didn’t know him personally, but he was a very smart guy!Brahms was exposed to a lot of material. I was exposed to a lot of material. He was an honest man. He had from his intelligence, but also from the seriousness of his efforts, a kind of humility.He also was highly judgmental, enormously judgmental and critical. As you know, he probably destroyed more of his music than he allowed to stand because he didn’t feel like it was his very, very, very best. That’s all he wanted left. On the one hand it’s admirable. But on the other hand he took away some of the learning potential for younger workers. But this is the choice. He’s saying, “This is it. This is the best I can do. Learn from that, rather than from my mistakes. Learn from where I got it right.”

  7. Grosse Fuge, Op.133 (Beethoven)
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    Everything in the 18th and 19th century world is what pushed us to where we are now. The story of the fugue and how it got cut off from its quartet and reissued, that’s Beethoven taking revenge the way he loved to do it because he got another check for it. They maybe didn’t write checks in those days. But in any case, he did give it another opus number. And I think it should’ve been cut off. Probably he knew that.There’s a legend that he was hanging out in the tavern. He didn’t go to the premiere. He asked the second violinist or something to rush right over and tell him what happened. He said, “Well, we premiered this happy part, and then the trio, and the waltz was great.” Beethoven didn’t even have to hear how everyone hated the ending, he just said, “Asses!” That was his favorite word. And you know, he’s not wrong. You know, he knew that the public wasn’t ready for it, either. So I’m sure the new finale he wrote was more serviceable.The reason I did it is because of an arc from the very beginning. I did a piece in 1969 called The Fugue, and it was done in silence. But the dancers wore heavy shoes and it was done on an amplified stage, so the dancers’ movement was the accompaniment. That was a work that I learned everything I know about counterpoint from, and I learned those lessons by applying them from Bach’s Musical Offering. I translated that into a visual world. So last year I turned to the fugue again.Of course, Beethoven’s sense of the fugue was completely different from Bach’s, yet it is still fugal. It’s a lifetime of learning, and he saw it that way too.Beethoven’s approach, or at least the legend is, that he studied fugue until the end of his life with Salieri. Even Beethoven was not quite happy with his compositional skills, and he was looking for new possibilities. But he also tore the form up. He carried it way beyond its logical extremes. But that’s fine. That’s what an artist does. That’s what Bach did in the first place when he put all the rules together.

  8. “Little Deuce Coupe” (The Beach Boys)
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    I thought of doing the Beatles, but I chose the Beach Boys because their music is more accessible to me as an American. The Beatles are great for so many, many reasons. But culturally, they’re not the same. The Beach Boys have a simpler, more homespun kind of music than what the Beatles ended up doing. Though the Beach Boys’ harmonies are pretty fantastic and some of it is pretty far out.

  9. The Catherine Wheel, “The Golden Section,” (David Byrne)
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    I commissioned this score from David called The Catherine Wheel, and the section at the end which is about eight minutes is called “The Golden Section.” It has been and is performed quite a lot as an excerpt. David’s whole score is about 90 and he had been writing song after song after song after song and he was getting towards the end and getting sort of tired.And I said, “Let’s listen to some Brandenburgs, shall we? Because this is what we’re going to need at this point.”So he stopped with the lyrics to push things to what I felt would be a climax to sustain the number of songs that precede it. David’s work kind of stands up from all the groups of that era. It was his breakout from the Talking Heads, and I think it was an important piece for him to do.

  10. “Shreveport Stomp” (Jelly Roll Morton)
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    I worked for five years in silence. I performed for five years in silence because I have an understanding of how powerful it is and how audiences respond to that first before they do to visual information. So by taking it away I could see, “Okay what do you get when you just dance.”But after five years of that it began to get a little lonely. So I thought okay, maybe we’ll put on some music. I’m going, “Are you sure you wanna do that? Okay. What’s that music gonna be?” And then I thought, “If we’re going to begin at the beginning, you might as well begin at the beginning. So – Jelly Roll Morton and American jazz.”The recording is from the 1920s, on The Red Hot Peppers album, he thought was the beginning of American jazz. I’m okay with that. I’m not gonna argue with that. So that was the essence of this. Jelly Roll Morton might be the beginning of American jazz, but Jimmy Yancey is the beginning of American music. End of story. Joplin go home. Yancey is phenomenal. Right?


For more information about Twyla Tharp and the Twyla Tharp Dance 50th Anniversary Tour, visit her website.

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