NEW YORK – The new PBS documentary on dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp is called “Twyla Moves.” In retrospect, that sounds a bit weak.
It really should be called “Twyla Moves And Won’t Stop As Long As She Has a Detectable Pulse,” a title that might perhaps begin to capture the fierceness with which Tharp, who turns 80 this year, approaches both work and life.
It’s a fierceness that led her at one point to take boxing lessons with Teddy Atlas, who trained Mike Tyson, to get in the best possible condition for a piece she was doing. “I eventually had to stop boxing because I got hit and broke my nose,” she recalled in an interview this week. “I said, ‘OK, your boxing days are over.’”
It’s also a fierceness that greets you the minute you begin a phone conversation with Tharp, whose words tumble out with striking speed and rarely a second of hesitation. She doesn’t need long to formulate fully developed thoughts -- nor does she seem to enjoy wasting time. In a recent Zoom group event, she was asked why she hadn’t done more movies. She proceeded to quickly list those she’d done -- “Hair,” “White Nights” and “Amadeus” among them -- with just a hint of impatience.
Given all that, it would seem obvious that something like a global pandemic wouldn't force Tharp off course, or keep her on the sofa binge-watching Netflix. On a recent afternoon, Tharp began a conversation by explaining why she’d had to postpone a few hours: Since 4 a.m. that morning she’d been choreographing a new work with ballet dancers in Düsseldorf, Germany. Choreography via Zoom, she noted, “is very strenuous — very limited from a sensory point of view.”
And perhaps especially for a choreographer like Tharp, who doesn’t simply sit and instruct dancers — she teaches by showing, even now. To be in that kind of shape approaching one’s ninth decade on earth is a challenge that would elude most of us. Part of Tharp’s physical regimen involves sticking to 1,200 calories a day.
“I don’t like carrying extra weight,” she says. “I like feeling what I call ‘on the bone,’ literally very close to the bone. For one thing the feet have suffered a certain amount of abuse, and I like to keep as much weight as possible out of them."
It’s shocking she hasn’t permanently damaged those feet. To say Tharp’s choreography is merely athletic is to understate the way in which it has stretched her artists and herself to the limits. Billy Joel, who collaborated with Tharp on the 2002 Broadway hit “Movin’ Out,” set to his music, speaks of being in rehearsal and watching dancers “throwing themselves around the stage — I was worried about people getting injured! I felt like, ‘Take it easy! Watch out for the end of the stage!’ They were risking life and limb every night.”
Musician David Byrne, with whom she worked on an earlier show, “The Catherine Wheel” in 1981, felt the same. ”These were top-notch dancers and she was pushing them to the limits of what they could do physically,” he says in the film.
Tharp explains it simply: "Part of the adventure for me has always been a physical challenge." She notes matter-of-factly that at one point in her weight training, she could lift 227 pounds, "and I am 108 pounds, so that's twice my body weight. I go for records and that’s what I do. I think anybody who works with me expects that same challenge.”
Needless to say, Tharp doesn’t seem to care a lot about physical comfort — or comfort of any kind. Ask, for example, whether she was comfortable being the subject of a documentary, and she says drily: “I’m not sure what you mean by comfortable.” Enjoyable? Nah. “It’s work, like anything else. I don’t attach to it commodities like comfort or enjoyment.”
Indeed, the theme itself is work. In one old clip, TV host Dick Cavett asks Tharp what she does to relax after a long period of work. “Work more,” she replies. You believe her.
Tharp didn’t want the film, directed by Steven Cantor and part of the American Masters series, to feel like a biography. She wanted a lot more present tense in there. “Often when you’re dealing with something that has as much history as I do or backlog, you can get lost in the past,” she says. “One of my conditions was that I’d be doing new work.”
So we watch her creating a new Zoom version of her work “The Princess and the Goblin,” with several prominent dancers handpicked for the film, including Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre, Maria Khoreva of the Mariinsky Ballet in Russia, Herman Cornejo of ABT, and Charlie Hodges, a longtime Tharp dancer. “Part of the mission here was that dance is always about getting the job done, that even under the most difficult of situations — no physical contact, good luck with that if your'e a dancer! — we can still deliver something, because we’re dancers. We’ll do it!"
But the jewel is her archive, which spans her career, beginning with her experiments in modern dance from the '60s. She's shown dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov, or working with him on “White Nights” with Gregory Hines. There are snippets from gems like the hugely popular “In the Upper Room,” a ballet set to the propulsive music of Philip Glass. Tharp began videotaping her work in 1968. “I have many many many thousands of hours of tape thoroughly documenting every piece I’ve ever made," she says, “because I am an art historian.”
There's nowhere near enough time to include her vast repertoire. About half the show is on the Zoom project -- 41 minutes, she notes with a choreographer’s precision -- “and that leaves you with 20 from when you were born to grew up and you're not not quite dead yet, then another 20 for 150 works and four books...”
And she’s not near done. Asked in the film whether she's achieved her mission, she says: “Not quite.” Asked by this reporter when that might be, she offered: “When I die?”
“There’s nothing that could hold Twyla back from creating — it feeds her,” says Copeland in the film. “We’re all trying to keep up with her, is the moral of the story.”