The no-nonsense choreographer opens up about her career, her dancers and why money gets in the way of female choreographers’ success.
Twyla Tharp may be celebrating her 50th anniversary this year, but she’s looking forward, not back. The groundbreaking choreographer who made her debut in 1965 with Tank Dive is responsible for the first crossover ballet—Deuce Coupe, which included both ballet and modern dance and was set to the Beach Boys—as well as classic works like In the Upper Room and Push Comes to Shove and films like Hair, White Nights and Amadeus. Her work on Broadway, most notably Movin’ Out, has extended not only her reach but the reach of dance. This fall, she kicks off a 10-week tour with two premieres—typically gutsy—and a powerhouse crew. Along with regulars John Selya, Rika Okamoto, Matthew Dibble and Ron Todorowski, the current group includes Nick Coppula and Eva Trapp, formerly of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre; Daniel Baker, formerly of Miami City Ballet; and Amy Ruggiero and Ramona Kelley, who were part of Come Fly Away. Reed Tankersley, who performed Baker’s Dozen as a Juilliard student, is, as Tharp puts it, “the baby.” Rounding the stage out will be two Amazonian queens: Savannah Lowery, on leave from New York City Ballet, and Kaitlyn Gilliland, a former NYCB dancer. As the impressive record shows, Tharp pulls the best out of her dancers and here, they run the gamut. “I’ve never held a bias against a dancer because they were short, tall, black or white,” Tharp says. “It’s only got to do with how they dance.”
Has the kind of dancer you’re drawn to changed over the years?
Gorgeous. Eclectically and brilliantly trained. Very intelligent. Extreme sense of humor. A willingness to work, but also an ability to work. They’re not quite the same thing. By now, I don’t have to put up with people who are trouble. You have to want to work with other people, and you have to appreciate what it is to be in an ensemble and to value the give and take of a great team. I need to see it from the audience and I need to feel it on the stage when I’m working with people. Otherwise, the singularity, the egocentric, the vanity—I don’t need it.
What do you mean by eclectic training?
Everything. We have an open position, we have a parallel position, we can be grounded, we can be high. You need to have it all. You also have to have a willingness to allow for movement to be funky or to be elegant, and that’s a state of mind. You require different kinds of grace. Another thing that’s important to understand is that as you mature, you can’t expect the legs to do it all. You have to be able to hold your own so that the legs and the feet are not being asked to do totally, absolutely everything.
Is that part of why dancers should do weight training?
Absolutely. Everybody, both the men and the women. If the guys don’t, they’re going to have a weak lower back; they’re going to splay their back. If the girls don’t, they’re going to have a collapsed sternum, and they’re going to have old ballerina chicken neck early. Echhh. If you do weights, you learn to ground your back, you’re pushing, you’re pulling and this is open and elevated. Hello.
When your dancers have a star moment, what don’t you want to see?
Ego. Not interested and neither are they. Once in a while, it’ll come out because we’re all human. What that does is reduces their own presence. It gives them a minimized force field. When the ego is at play, it looks to draw a very small circle right around itself and everything else should keep out. A big performer doesn’t have to put up the barricades.
Over the years, a couple of your dancers have appeared on shows like “So You Think You Can Dance.” How do you feel about those programs?
The thing is this: I’m all for every one of these people having every experience that makes sense for them to have, because, ultimately, if they profit from it, I profit from it. They bring it back and then we have something to reference and guess what? Like with an actor, it is better to be working than not working. I am not arrogant or insecure about this. I’m all in favor of seeing people work in as many different realms as possible, because I have.
What’s been your greatest risk as a choreographer?
Oh please. I have no idea. Anything that’s exciting is a gamble. Anything that’s a challenge is a gamble. This tour is a scientific experiment in terms of doing something that is extremely demanding and doing it well. That’s not exactly a gamble, because I don’t gamble with other people’s lives. When I’m challenging myself it’s one thing; when you’re responsible for other people, it’s something else. I think that making the decision that the 50th would not be a revisitation of the master works and somehow pull out rep that represented a career that we all knew, that’s minimally crazy.
What are your thoughts about being a female choreographer, especially in the ballet world?
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that I never set out to be a very good female choreographer. I set out to be a very good choreographer, end of story. I never accept any awards that are the “Best Female” anything. In ballet, one of the big reasons that the men prevail is partially because of the overbearing attitude in ballet companies, which is heavily chauvinistic in terms of women and their place. We all know this. However, it is also because most women are not big jumpers and they can’t partner. And a lot of what’s involved in new choreography involves partnering, and they don’t know how to design from the other side. I taught myself how to do that. I can do both sides of partnering. I know how the grips work, I know how the leverage has to function. So part of it is not “Let’s just sit in the corner and cry ‘poor me’ ”—let’s figure out why and let’s go and get those chops. In the modern-dance world, it’s a different deal. The earlier practitioners, at least in this country, were women. Now that seems to have flipped, and it’s like, Hmmm? What happened here? Money.
There was no money in modern dance. It didn’t exist. Everybody was in there simply to do it. More and more grants started to happen and then it’s a field where it becomes competitive about earning an income. Whenever earning an income becomes an issue, men have an edge. Unless women have a driving need to support themselves, and, heaven help us, any children. Then they will compete, as I have done. Otherwise, they will stand back and expect—emotionally perhaps a bit and practically perhaps a bit—for some support, because they are, after all, women. Bullshit. I’m being straight. It’s the responsibility of the women. You can’t sit back and say we’ve been exploited and taken advantage of. It’s like, Get out there and fix it. If you want something, you have to do it yourself.
Is there an area of dance you prefer to choreograph in?
No! Give me anything. Anything, anytime.
Gia Kourlas writes about dance for The New York Times.
While studying at the Royal Ballet School, Matthew Dibble dreamed of working with the world’s great choreographers. But by the time he joined The Royal, the company was in transition. “Ashton was gone. Kenneth was dead,” he says. “I wanted to dance under working choreographers. It never interested me to do the Giselles.”
After five years in the corps, Dibble and five of his colleagues left to start their own troupe, K Ballet, in Japan. But life abroad was trying, and after three years, he moved home.
Soon after, he got a call from Twyla Tharp, whom he’d worked with on Mr. Worldly Wise and Push Comes to Shove at The Royal. She invited him to audition for one of her projects, then later asked him to join her company in New York. Though Dibble connected with Tharp’s collaborative style—“Something clicked when we met,” he says—he was hesitant to pick up his life again. Her response, he recalls, was something along the lines of: “Are you joking? You’re being stupid. Get over here and dance.”
So he did. And since that engagement in 2001, Dibble has been a staple among Tharp’s leading dancers, on the Movin’ Out tour, in Come Fly Away and now as a member of the latest iteration of her company. What’s most attracted him to her work, beyond the athleticism and larger-than-life personalities she demands of her dancers, is her intuitive sense of the chemistry that makes for a great show. An exacting but sensitive leader, she brings together an energetically balanced but stylistically diverse group of talents. “She’s direct, there’s no messing about,” says Dibble. “And she doesn’t ask anything of her dancers she wouldn’t do herself.”
Could Dibble have ever predicted his path, from ballet to Broadway and beyond? “Ballet helped me do what I’ve been able to do,” he says. “But I never got into dance to be safe. With Twyla, the studio is an open working space.” —Kristin Schwab
Her first encounter with Twyla Tharp is something Rika Okamoto remembers well. It was 1993, and Tharp was selecting dancers for a work she was choreographing on the Martha Graham Company. Okamoto had just joined the previous year and wasn’t even supposed to be in the audition, which was reserved for senior dancers. (Longtime Graham dancer and master teacher Yuriko Kikuchi “pushed me into the studio and shut the door,” says Okamoto.) “When I lived in Japan, I went to see White Nights in the theater twice,” she says, referring to the 1985 movie Tharp choreographed starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. “I was the youngest person in the company. I was sure I wasn’t going to be in the piece.” Okamoto ended up being cast as Persephone in Tharp’s Demeter and Persephone.
Okamoto danced with Graham until 1999. Burnt out, she left the company, and considered leaving dance entirely after dabbling in acting and starting a family. Then Tharp’s people called about a workshop for a little budding idea called Movin’ Out. Okamoto went on to perform during the entirety of the show’s Broadway run (2002–2005). “I might not have known it then, but I realize now that I wanted to be a muse, be original,” she says of the transition. “When I started working with Twyla, I felt I could be who I was. I didn’t have to copy anyone.”
Since then, Okamoto has been a constant Tharp collaborator. She originated the role of Slim in Come Fly Away, helps Tharp develop movement for outside commissions and works as her assistant, archivist and education leader. “Performing or not performing, it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “Twyla challenges you to the maximum. Sometimes the challenge is beyond you. I still go home and cry sometimes, and I’m 46!”
This tour, says Okamoto, may or may not mark her last go at dancing. But that doesn’t mean she necessarily considers herself a veteran of all things Tharp. “Everybody else in the company is a ballet dancer but me, which I used to be so insecure about. But you discover yourself through challenge, whatever that is. Twyla always asks me at the end of the day, ‘Rika, what did you learn?’ That makes me want to go back for more. Once you taste that sense of ‘I can do this,’ you get addicted.” —KS