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.
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.
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
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
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
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It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.
I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
Considering the demands of a career in dance, it isn't surprising that many professionals find romance in the rehearsal studio. With taxing schedules, perfectionist tendencies and quirky habits, it can be challenging to find true love outside of the art form. We spoke with three non-dancer spouses to hear what it's like sharing their life with professionals from ballet to Broadway.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.
Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.
When Catherine Wreford found out that she had brain cancer in June 2013, with doctors predicting she had only two to six years left to live, there was one thing she knew she wanted to do: dance.
She had grown up training in the recreational division at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, then went on to perform on Broadway and in musical theater productions around the country. She eventually left the stage to find more stable work, running a mortgage company and later getting a nursing degree because, she says, "I knew that I could do that for a long time."
But a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma meant she didn't have a long time left.