Interview conducted and excerpted by Laura Diffenderfer
The iconic Twyla Tharp has returned to The Joyce with a program that includes a world premiere set to the work of Bob Dylan, and two gems from the 1970s: RAGGEDY DANCES and THE FUGUE. She sat down with us to discuss why THE FUGUE was different than the works that had come before it; how it relates to her masterwork IN THE UPPER ROOM; and why she revisited the music of Bob Dylan in her new work, DYLAN LOVE SONGS.
LD: So, you're bringing back THE FUGUE, from 1970.
TT: THE FUGUE never goes away.
LD: Have you been performing it?
TT: No, FUGUE is the foundation. Everyone who works with me knows what THE FUGUE is. Does that mean they've all danced it? No, but most of them have at one time or another. THE FUGUE is the first piece that was an intact work that accomplished a mission. The earlier pieces, until that point, all ask very good questions. Some of the answers that came out of those questions developed the necessity for developing counterpoint. THE FUGUE was the first.
LD: I know there's a really rigorous structure to THE FUGUE. [From Tharp’s website: Modeled on "The Musical Offering" by Johann Sebastian Bach, THE FUGUE consists of a twenty-count theme which is developed into twenty variations.] Was structure something that you'd always been interested in?
TT: I'm a musician.
LD: Yeah, that makes sense. You are a musician. [Twyla started piano lessons at age 1.5 and also learned to play violin and viola.] Do you think that THE FUGUE has a stronger structure than your other works?
TT: Well, I mean, certainly than the earlier pieces. That was not my goal. [Before THE FUGUE,] we were singular individuals moving in time and space, in our own path and pattern, and crossing occasionally but with no real control. So, we altered that.
THE FUGUE performed by Reed Tankersley, Kaitlyn Gilliland and Kara Chan.
LD: Do you think that it changed how you looked at structure as you went forward after that?
TT: I don't think that's the question. I think it changed how the audience looked at structure.
LD: How did it change the audience?
TT: Well, the audience was accepting of the fact that [certain movements] happened in that they didn't necessarily make a logical connection—
LD: Between the music and the dance?
TT: Well, in the case of Cage and Cunningham, yes. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part [at that time] the structure was relatively free of form. Audiences were perhaps thinking, "This is how it is," and I was simply saying that we can have these connections and these meeting points that actually generate a kind of tension, and therefore have an inherent sort of drama.
[The movement in THE FUGUE] was grounded in a very different way from how we had worked before and a how a lot of folks who are working function, in that it did have this beginning, middle and end to it. It didn't just go on forever and not just anything was going to work. Very few things were going to work. So that seemed perhaps to be a little more judgmental, in a sense. I had thrown out a lot of stuff to get to this, so—
TT: Yes, as an entity it had a much more reductive vocabulary than just anything goes, both structurally and from the point of view of movement. I mean, for the first five years we were all virtuoso dancers; we could do anybody's movement, and the whole goal was to find something nobody had ever done before. So we had to pass through a lot of stuff to get to something that felt as though it might be a little unknown.
LD: And THE FUGUE felt unknown.
TT: So, that became a certain kind of process, and by the time we did pieces like MEDLEY and DANCING IN THE STREETS, the vocabulary of movement was insane. I mean, the coordinations: we were doing triple and quadruple coordinations in the body. It's like, “Okay, we can do all of this. Now, what do we really have to have?" So I pulled back from all of that stuff, all of those possibilities, all of that kind of more and more and moreness of the thing, and stripped it down to the bare necessities. And that's what THE FUGUE was. All right? But, there's five years of work buried in THE FUGUE.
LD: In the work, you can actually feel what came before.
TT: You certainly can. You can't really do a good FUGUE if you don't know the other stuff that we're not using. I mean, for us to really put up one of these old pieces and have its true substance and integrity is enormously time-consuming, because it's not just the piece you see on stage, it's a lot of the material that that piece evolved from, because if you don't understand that earlier material, you're not going to have any sense whatsoever really of what is being presented.
LD: So, with a new dancer, do you teach them some of the old material first?
LD: So you have these old lessons in your archives that you can—
TT: The dances are the lessons. Every time I made a dance it was to make us better dancers, that's why I made the dance.
LD: Right. That's interesting. So then, your new dancers are learning your old work, and kind of going through that same process that you all went through.
TT: If they're not becoming better dancers, something's the matter.
LD: Another dance that you're going to show at The Joyce is a suite of work to the music of Bob Dylan.
TT: Seven songs.
LD: What made you want to revisit the work of Bob Dylan?
TT: The original concept with Dylan's material [when creating the Broadway musical] was to approach it as a love song, because Dylan has done 400 love songs and they're all different, and they all have a different take on the subject matter. But producers of Broadway shows want the things like Rolling Stone and the ones that have had a bit more notoriety to them, perhaps, than something like Every Grain of Sand, which is not in this consortium, but is also a great love song.
LD: And what about his music draws you in?
TT: I mean, Dylan's a challenge because he has such a big reservoir of material, because he's been working so long, because he's a consistent worker, because he's had a lot of evolution, because he's crossed over—back and forth, through and under—life into music and vice versa for a very long time. He’s probably more successfully than any other writer of songs that are called “popular,” certainly in his generation. I mean, arguably, a case could be made for his prolific investigation of one subject and another as unparalleled, so there's a lot to look at.
Plus, there are similarities in his career and my career, so basically we ran parallel. We were downtown at the same time... There's an inherent understanding of what he's writing from, in those songs.
LD: What is important to you when you are making a dance? Do you enjoy the process?
TT: What's important to me is: does it communicate with an audience, and does it compel them, and are they engaged, and do they need it? Does it make a difference to them?
I am not romantic about process. I am anxious to get out of there as quickly as I can.
LD: When you're making work—
TT: I say, “Let's get out of this process thing and get what we're doing here done.”
LD: Oh, interesting. So you're looking for the resolution.
TT: I'm always looking for the thing to come to its own conclusion.
LD: How do you know when it comes to the conclusion?
TT: It's done. You just know it's done. There's nothing more to say.
LD: So when it's done, do you have a sense of relief?
TT: In some ways it's never done. Having said, “Let's get there and get out of it as quickly as possible,” in some ways it's never done. I don't go back and torment [old work], but I do look at it and go, "Yeah, okay, that works there, but what if X, Y and Z? Oh, let's go do X, Y and Z."
LD: Is there anything that you look back on and you think that was just right?
TT: I think there's some very good pieces there, but “just right” suggests Goldilocks has got the one that's too hot, and the one that's too cold, and the one that's just right, and sometimes the one that's too cold is pretty good, and the one that's too hot is also very good, right?
LD: Right. But that perfect thing—
TT: Perfect thing is out of my hands. That belongs to what has been called God.
LD: And so you don't experience that when you see a dance.
TT: No. I don't think of it that way, because perfect is an airtight container, and we breathe air.
LD: So what does it mean to be successful with the work to you?
TT: A is a good beginning. B has to follow it; there's no other choice. It compels C. C drives to a D that is engaging, and so on and so forth. But everything [is driving to] the next item until that which was implied and won has been pulled to a point where you're thinking, “Okay, that has a rotundity to it. I'll buy that.”
LD: I want to ask about In The Upper Room, because it's one of my favorite pieces, I think, of all time. What were you trying to do with that piece?
TT: What do you think I did do with that piece?
LD: I can't even really describe it. I mean, it's heroic, in a lot of ways. The [Phillip Glass] music in some ways adds to that feeling, but it's go for broke; it just never stops. But it's also haunting. It's emotional in a way that I haven't seen in some of your other works.
IN THE UPPER ROOM performed by Miami City Ballet
TT: What do you mean by emotional?
LD: It reaches toward something beyond us.
TT: Okay. I'm not sure I'm going to get too emotional here. The basis of IN THE UPPER ROOM is THE FUGUE.
LD: Ah. Well, now we have an excuse to talk about it.
TT: It's the first piece that I made when I did not say, "Okay, I’ve got to start from a clear, new terrain here. Forget everything from before. Let's just go new." And with IN THE UPPER ROOM, I said, "Hold on. THE FUGUE has got to be acknowledged as kind of a beginning point." So, the drive and dynamic of that kind of clarity—and it's a kind of sculptural clarity—was a given.
LD: Is there a similar structure, or is the similarity in the way of moving?
TT: In the dancing. In the movement. In how the body has to be utilized. The body has to be very grounded and it has to be very centered in what we call a parallel position, for the most part. There are exceptions, and there are exceptions also in THE FUGUE, given as how the last count of THE FUGUE is an open position, but for the most part, it is parallel.
So, it was to be very anchored, but it also needed to have the other end of the spectrum, which was ethereal—which was the light and high. So you had the full spectrum of the physical possibility being grounded, being elevated, and how to work between those two. Also, it happened to be done in . And we began to do Yoga in the '70s, so by the time that IN THE UPPER ROOM was made, everyone was familiar with the stretch of Yoga—grounded, reaching out— which is very different from both modern dance and from ballet. So, there are actually three strains in In IN THE UPPER ROOM, three physical strains, which a body has to understand in order to address that piece, so it demands a range of dynamics.
It does have a kind of parallelism [to THE FUGUE], because we were saying, “Okay, I'm pretty good at this, but I need more of this.” And we were willing to have that humility to say, “Yeah, I'm not perfect. I’ve got to get more of this in order to be able to feel like I can really drive forward, to drive completely, to drive fully—to go through the wall.
They go through the wall.
LD: Yes, they do. They go through the wall. And why were you after the ethereal?
TT: Because it was the other end of spectrum. Here [Tharp gestures low] is as grounded as you can be, which is THE FUGUE, basically, and here [Tharp gestures upward] is as high as you can be. As I said, I'd done a lot of ballets, I worked with great classical dancers—very light and high. They get as high as you can get. So we had as high as you can get, and as low as you can get, and in-between, as stretched out as you can get.
That just about takes care of it.