Filler Tharp!

The Well-Known Choreographer's Company Readies A Tucson Performance.
By Margaret Regan

WHEN TWYLA THARP was eight years old, she was wrenched out of the Indiana countryside where her parents' families had farmed for generations. Leaving behind two sets of Quaker grandparents, the Tharps headed out into modern America, traveling along the mythical Route 66 in search of a new life in California.

If this great, quintessentially American upheaval "mark(ed) the start of my attempts to understand life through motion," as the world-famous choreographer says in her 1992 autobiography Push Comes to Shove, it surfaces more specifically in two brand-new dances Tharp's company will perform next Wednesday, October 2, at Centennial Hall.

"Sweet Fields," the concert opener, "relates to my very early past," the no-nonsense Tharp reported by telephone last week from San Francisco, where she was rehearsing her new company for the September 20 premiere of the works. "It's performed to 18th- and 19th-century American a cappella music. It's a very rigorous work that has to do with an anchor in faith. There are some metaphors people will recognize as coming from various religions."

Accompanied by Shaker music and sacred harp songs, the piece was originally called "Bluff Point," the name of the Quaker meeting house in Indiana Tharp's grandparents attended. These sweet, nostalgic strains will make a decided contrast to Juan Garcia Esquival's "bachelor-pad music" for "Highway 66," the rollicking concert centerpiece Tharp calls "a series of small adventures on Route 66." Tharp noted that even after her family came to the end of their own 66 pilgrimage, their livelihood depended on the highway. Her mother operated a drive-in movie theatre and her father ran a Chrysler dealership, at the point that Route 66 intersected Rialto, California. "I know it well. I'm grateful to it."

The 54-year-old Tharp will not dance in the concert, which concludes with the epic "Heroes," a balletic piece she describes as "my take on the notion of heroes," set to the music of Philip Glass. Instead, her brand-new troupe of 13 dancers, Tharp!, will perform, dancing a program that is characteristically Tharp, an eclectic mix of dance styles and music. In days gone by, Tharp nearly always danced her own works and though she still religiously dances every day in private, she rarely performs.

"I can't expect my body to sustain the rigors of performing," she said, adding a dramatic mock-groan. "It is a jolt to the ego: You can replace yourself. But it's better now for me to put my efforts into the dancing of the others."

The New York-based Tharp nevertheless has slowed down not at all in her lifelong mission to create dance that's a "new language, capable of saying new things--or old things in new ways," dance that fuses modern, jazz and ballet into "a kind of dance that no one else could do," as she writes in her autobiography. In recent years she's set three new works on the American Ballet Theater, including a piece featuring live music by Wynton Marsalis and his band. Her new company will tour for the next two years, possibly at one point doing a retrospective of three decades of her choreography. Tharp is probably most widely known for her popular collaborations with some of the stars of ballet, including Mikhail Baryshnikov when he was at American Ballet Theatre ("Push Comes to Shove"), and at the Joffrey Ballet ("Deuce Coupe," set to the music of the Beach Boys).

But Tharp started her professional career working with the likes of modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, and giving her performances to avant-garde audiences in New York City churches and college auditoriums. An art history student at Barnard College in the '60s, she searched for the "classic" across art forms and soaked up the "stringent aesthetic" of the modernist painters who flocked to New York in those days. Her early works, groundbreaking pieces like "Tank Dives" and "Re-Moves," were performed entirely without music. This rigor produced dances of an almost mathematical precision. As Tharp acknowledged, "There's a geometric basis in every piece" she creates. "Part of the idea is to rearrange the geometry--that's what makes a dance new."

Tharp has written that dance is the stepchild among the arts, with modern dance considered the most difficult of all forms.

"Ballet companies are working within a genre the public has been exposed to," she said. "They know there are Nutcrackers and Swan Lakes. When a classical company comes to town, it's not such a shock. People can say, 'We have dance in town.' But the people (modern dance troupes) dealing with our own times are doing something unfamiliar. The public is less likely to accept it as 'dance.' "

Tharp eventually made her accommodation with wider audiences, earning a living as a single mother and doling out regular paychecks to her dancers by moving between the commercial dance world--she was the choreographer for the movie Hair, for instance--and the more threadbare environs of experimental modern dance.

"At least I've been able to keep working on a continuing basis," she said. She believes she owes her considerable success, in part, to her "ability to work double time, to do commercial as well as more private work. Mother trained to be a classical pianist and she ran a drive-in theatre and sold tickets and popcorn. I didn't see any contradiction between selling tickets and playing Bach...There are two sides to every coin. Or two coins to every side: I like it better that way."

The curtain rises on Tharp! at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 2, at Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus. Tickets are $15, $23 and $29, with $4 discounts available for students, children and UA faculty and staff. Melissa Lowe of the UA dance program will give a free talk before the performance from 6:45 to 7:15 p.m. in the Douglass Buildings, Room 101, just east of Centennial Hall. After the show, the audience will have a chance to meet the artists. For information or for reservations call the box office at 621-3341. To order tickets from Dillard's call 1-800-638-4253. TW

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