Magazine

Talking with Twyla

The no-nonsense choreographer opens up about her career, her dancers and why money gets in the way of female choreographers’ success.

Reed Tankersley and Ramona Kelley. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Twyla Tharp. Photo by Marc van Borstel.

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.

Amy Ruggiero (center) and Daniel Baker (right) rehearsing The One Hundreds. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Kaitlyn Gilliland. Photo by Kyle Froman.

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.

Tankersley, Ruggiero and Eva Trapp. Photo by Kyle Froman.

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.

 

Trapp. Photo by Kyle Froman.

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.

 

How so?

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.

 

Matthew Dibble

Photo by Jayme Thornton.

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

 

Rika Okamoto

Photo by Jayme Thornton.

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

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Dance in Pop Culture
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Do you have a sprained ankle that won't heal? It's not that rare. Studies have shown that 10 to 30 percent of sprains will have symptoms later. So what is a sprained ankle anyway? It's the most common injury in all of sports and dancing.


Dancing pushes your body to its limit. If you roll over on your ankle when landing from a jump, you can sprain or injure the ligaments on the outer (lateral) side that hold the joint together. This is different from a "strain," which affects your tendons and muscles. An easy way to remember this distinction is this: You sprain your ankle, but you strain your Achilles tendon. The degree of injury varies, depending on the damage to the ligaments. We determine this by a physical exam and X-rays that help us classify the ankle sprain as Grade I (mild), II (moderate), or III (severe). The most serious sprain involves a complete tear of the ligaments with marked instability that often requires surgery. Fortunately, most sprains are Grade I or II and heal in three to six weeks. The exceptions are those that continue to cause trouble. This is the "sprained ankle that won't heal."

In medical circles, residual problems from sprained ankles cause considerable angst, because they can be hard to diagnose and difficult to treat-especially when telltale signs are ignored by stoic dancers. Problems with old sprains tend to fall into three categories: swelling, pain, and instability ("giving way").


Swelling

It's normal for a sprained ankle to swell, sometimes for four to six weeks, or longer. But swelling that persists for more than three months may be a sign of trouble. The lining of the capsule surrounding a joint is called the synovium, and anything inside the joint that irritates the synovium will cause it to secrete fluid. Swelling inside of a joint is often a sign that something is causing irritation. (The swelling that is seen from the outside is a combination of soft tissue swelling around the joint and fluid within the joint itself.) In the ankle there are several reasons for this condition. While these may seem alarming, treatment is possible. But first, let's take a look at the culprits.


Chronic synovitis Sometimes there is damage to the surface of the joint that does not show up on any tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, even though it continues to cause irritation and excess fluid.


A bone chip At the time of injury, a bone chip may have been knocked loose, leaving a "loose body" floating around inside to cause trouble.


An OCD lesion "OCD" in sports medicine stands for osteochondritis dissecans (not obsessive compulsive disorder). The easiest way to think of this is like a cavity in a tooth. It is something that leaves a small hole in the surface on the ankle bone (the talus) with a dead piece of bone in it. An MRI study will usually pick this up.


A bone bruise This is not black and blue. Instead, it feels like an achy pain that is difficult to explain and lasts for months. There is edema, or fluid, within the bones themselves that we can only see on an MRI study. Fortunately, it is rarely serious and gradually fades away.


What can you do? Treatment for chronic swelling, no matter what the cause, usually requires sleeping with the leg elevated on a pillow at night and putting on an elastic ankle support in the morning when you get out of bed. If the swelling is minimal and is slowly going away with no other symptoms, it is OK to dance, but go easy on the jumps and grand plies till all the swelling is gone. However, if it doesn't feel so good then don't do it! An ankle support (no need for metal hinges, etc.) usually feels good at this stage.


It also helps to avoid the saltshaker, which leads to water retention. With diligence, the swelling should go away. However, if the leg is swollen up the shin, something else may be happening, and it needs to be checked out by your doctor. Swelling that does not go away is a sign that something more is wrong. Normal joints do not swell.


Pain

There are several common causes of ankle pain that does not go away:


The sinus tarsi syndrome Lingering inflammation, scar tissue, or a partly torn ligament can occur in the hollow place in the side of the anklebone called the sinus tarsi (sinus in Latin means hollow or sunken and the tarsus is the ankle). This is the most common cause of the sprained ankle that won't heal. While it can be difficult to discern this problem on an X-ray or MRI, a physical exam by a dance medicine specialist can pinpoint the diagnosis by locating the exact area that hurts.


A tarsal coalition Residual pain in the sinus tarsi after the original sprain heals can also be due to an unrecognized tarsal coalition. The ankle has two components: the regular ankle joint that moves up and down, and the subtalar (ST) joint beneath it that moves in and out. Together, they make up the ankle joint complex. Some people are born with limited motion in their ST joint because the bones in this area are joined together where they ought to be separate—a coalition. It can usually be seen on an X-ray or MRI. This condition is present in about five percent of ankles. It usually occurs in one ankle only, rather than both. As with a sprain, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. In dancers, it is usually mild or it would have caused trouble before the sprain. Dancers with mild symptoms can often work around it.


The high ankle sprain This is marked by tenderness in the front of the ankle on the outside. Unlike routine ankle sprains where the main damaged ligaments lie right in the sinus tarsi, this one affects a ligament that is higher up, at the level of the ankle joint itself. This is the so-called "high" ankle sprain, which can be a real bugaboo because it takes two to three times longer to heal than a routine sprain. It may not show up on medical tests, so the diagnosis is usually made on the basis of the physical exam.


Secondary problems Lastly, there are several conditions, such as FHL tendonitis ("dancer's tendonitis") and the os trigonum syndrome that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Dancers often think that the residual pain is part of the healing process when it is actually a separate problem. Later the sprain may heal, but these conditions can continue to be painful and may even require surgery if left unaddressed.


Instability

"My ankle gives way" is probably the second most common leftover problem with ankle sprains after the sinus tarsi syndrome. We doctors see it all the time. Many things can cause this problem. Fortunately most respond to appropriate treatment.


Peroneal weakness There are two peroneal tendons that run parallel down the outside of the ankle; one is short and the other is long. Their major function is to keep the ankle from rolling over and prevent sprains. After an injury they can remain weak, so the ankle is poorly protected from further roll-overs. It's easy at this point to fall into the vicious cycle of "Because it's weak it rolls over and because it rolls over it's weak," which can go on for months. If this is the problem, it is easy to fix. Simply restore the normal peroneal strength with physical therapy. A few months of daily use of a theraband, under the guidance of a physical therapist, will usually strengthen the peroneals. (They gain strength faster if the exercises are done in the full "tendu" position.)

Laxity of the ankle ligaments Grade I sprains do not usually damage the ankle ligaments to any extent, but repeated Grade II or Grade Ill injuries can lead to permanent looseness of the ligaments that hold the anklebones together. This is a difficult situation, because they can be tightened only by surgery. The surgery is quite effective, but the recovery is usually three months or more. So it is nice to avoid it if you can.


Many loose ankles often give way because of a combination of looseness and weakness. These can often be brought up to full strength with physical therapy and then they don't give way anymore. The number one indication for ankle ligament surgery is the failure of rehab to correct the problem.


Pain, swelling and instability

The problems associated with a recurring sprained ankle can co-exist and produce all three symptoms. In this ease the diagnosis is particularly difficult. There is one last problem that might be going on:


Peroneal tendon damage With repeated sprains, the peroneal tendons can develop small longitudinal rents or tears. When this happens, the tendons swell up in the sheathes that surround them and cause achy pains, chronic swelling and weakness that cannot be corrected by exercise. This problem is easy to miss and hard to correct because it usually gets worse in spite of all treatment. Fortunately, this condition also responds well to surgery.

The best way to diagnose these various problems is to see a sports or dance medicine specialist for a history, physical exam, and appropriate studies. Your doctor may request X-rays followed by an MRI, CT and/or bone scan. Physical therapy is usually the first step in the recovery. Do not try to treat yourself! There is an old expression in medicine that says, "Someone who treats themselves has a fool for a physician." Merde!


William G. Hamilton, M.D. is the orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The School of American Ballet and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Ballet School.

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