For more than five decades, Twyla Tharp has been a phenomenon in American dance, a choreographer who not only broke the rules but refused to repeat her own successes. Tharp has made movies, television specials, and nearly one hundred riveting dance works. Her dance show Movin’ Out ran on Broadway for three years and won Tharp a Tony award for Best Choreography.
Howling Near Heaven is the only in-depth study of Twyla Tharp’s unique, restless creativity. This second edition features a new forward that brings the account of Tharp’s work up to date and discusses how dance and dance-making in the United States have changed in recent years. This is the story of a choreographer who refused to be pigeonholed and the dancers who accompanied her as she sped across the frontiers of dance.
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Howling Near Heaven
Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance
By Marcia B. Siegel
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Marcia B. Siegel
All rights reserved.
Leotard Days 1965 — 1966
Judson Memorial Church, in the geographical center of Greenwich Village, stands like an exotic souvenir today on the southern edge of Washington Square Park, among the modern monoliths of New York University. Its Italian Renaissance — style ochre brickwork, ten-story campanile, and tile roofs link it to its neighbor across the park, Washington Square Arch — both were designed by the distinguished American architect Stanford White. The church has seventeen stained-glass windows by John La Farge and a bas relief altarpiece by Augustus St. Gaudens. It was declared a New York City landmark in 1966. The sanctuary has recently been restored to its turn-of-the-century beaux-arts splendor, a high, airy space of imposing beige marble Corinthian pillars; soaring vaults inset with vibrant arched and circular stained-glass windows; a paneled mansard ceiling; and a color scheme of beige, aqua, and cream to complement the marble wall panels.
Revisiting this beautiful house of light, it's hard to recall the way it looked when it was filled with rebellious performance events decades ago. In fact, at the end of the 1990s Judson's Baptist congregation agonized about whether to restore this grand space at all. According to senior minister Peter Laarman, Judson Church has always been more about ephemera than about preservation. Founded in 1890, the church was dedicated to serving the needs of the city. From immigrant job training programs and health centers to teenage sports, civil rights, antiwar protests, and gay-pride marches, the church has taken a leading role in New York's progressive dynamic. The showcasing of avant-garde dance events only extended its mission.
Beaux-arts architecture represented a form of cultural imperialism to the reformers of the 1960s. Over a period of time the walls, ceiling, and columns were painted a political dirt brown, though the altar and stained-glass windows remained. Regular Sunday services never ceased, but by 1966 the pews had been removed from the sanctuary to accommodate art happenings and Judson Dance Theater experiments. Judson Poets Theater held forth in the choir loft, next to the boxy old pipe organ with its pillars, carved wreaths, and trumpeting angels. Protest rallies shook the building and militants gathered outside to begin marches and demonstrations. For dance performances, the audience trudged up a set of creaky wooden stairs to the sanctuary. You came in under the choir loft, through a kind of low cavern, which was usually littered with a random assortment of thrift-shop chairs, props, piano, and equipment. Sometimes this "lobby" area was curtained off from the performance space.
On October 29, 1966, for the first of three concerts by Twyla Tharp and Company, chairs for the audience of about one hundred had been placed on three sides, facing away from the altar. Three pieces were on the program: Re-Moves (in four sections and two introductions), Twelve Foot Change, and a revival of Tharp's first work, Tank Dive, given only the year before in a small theater within the Hunter College art department. Twelve Foot Change was subsequently called Yancey Dance, after the music by jazz pianist Jimmy Yancey. Re-Moves was forty-five minutes long and had big ambitions.
Not that there was anything tentative about what Tharp had already done. Just out of college, she had danced for a season with Paul Taylor, then quit to find her own way. To earn money, she'd appeared for a summer at the Alaskan Pavilion of the New York World's Fair, dancing a "sort of furry hootchy-kootchy" in a bearskin rug. Following the approved modern dance practice of throwing out all that preceded one's own discoveries, Tharp's first two serious concerts encapsulated her idea of the basics, nonchalantly disguised in improper elements. After the eight-minute Tank Dive, which constituted the entire event at Hunter, she produced a second, slightly longer concert in the same small space. She made a twenty-minute film-dance, Stride, which was not intended for a live audience. The same filmmaker, Robert Barry, had also documented Tank Dive, just as if it were a dance classic in need of preservation.
With hindsight, one could say she'd laid out all her major credentials in her first year: the talent, ego, and determination to make an individual style, the embrace of popular culture, the fascination with film as a medium for both experimentation and preservation, and the pragmatic exploitation of whatever resources were available in order to create what she deemed worthy. At once a rebel and a puritan, Tharp embraced the avant-garde as an opportunity to experiment with ideas, not as an aesthetic or political statement. She had come from a deeply eccentric family; nonsense was perfectly all right with her. The oldest of four children, she had an ambitious mother who pushed her into improving studies from preschool age: piano, violin, viola, elocution, painting, German and French, baton twirling, and of course, dance lessons. She learned early how to schedule her time so as to get the most out of it, knocking off her school homework in the car as her mother drove her from their home near San Bernardino to classes in Los Angeles. On weekends she worked in the food concession of her mother's drive-in movie. Too busy taking lessons to have a teenage social life, she learned how to be an overachiever, a discriminating workaholic.
Nowadays, Tharp downplays her relationship to Paul Taylor, but her brief presence in his company came at an important time. Taylor in the early '60s was at a crossroads in his career. He'd started out with a dual citizenship in the commonwealth of modern dance, as a member of the Martha Graham Company and a dancer with Merce Cunningham. Taylor began doing his own choreography around 1958. He'd given a few notorious, dadaistic concerts and assembled the core of a company. Aureole (1962) scandalized the modern dance community at the American Dance Festival, not for its outrageousness but for its conservatism. A "white ballet" with formal, musical choreography to Handel, it affronted the expressionistic sensibilities that prevailed at the time. The next year he reverted to the bizarre and dissociated. Scudorama was just about finished when Tharp came into the company, and as a junior member she was given things to do that she considered beneath her. At one point she executed a slow, deranged somersault across the back of the stage, and at another she made an entrance under a beach towel, perched on the head of Dan Wagoner.
She says Taylor interested her as a dancer but not as a choreographer. After appearing in three other new works, Party Mix, Junction, and Red Room, she voiced her disapproval so loudly that he gave her what became a permanent leave of absence, advising her to go try doing her own work and see how easy it was. Taylor succeeded in molding his experimental impulses into a repertory and a company that were conventional enough to survive. Tharp faced a similar transition five years after her own initial borderline works.
In staging a concert at Judson Church, Tharp was treading on the turf of the avant-garde dance community, but the concert was anomalous, both in Tharp's career and in the annals of Judson Dance. Tharp was quite aware of the symbolic significance of performing at Judson. After the concert was over, she says, "we had passed through the vale and come out whole ... we had situated ourselves in the vanguard of the investigation into how dance could relate to and deal with our lives." Tharp was, and always would be, an independent. A tireless inventer of movement, she would try anything, but she wasn't drawn into the waves of communal dissatisfaction that flooded the dance world of the '60s. Her connection to Judson and to the avant-garde was her partner, Robert Huot, a visual artist and filmmaker. Huot had performed at Judson two years earlier in War, a collaborative performance piece with his friend, the artist Robert Morris. He designed the costumes and sets for all Tharp's dances from Tank Dive until they broke up in 1971.
Tharp's Judson program, on the surface, could have been any one of the avant-garde custard pies that were being pushed into the face of traditional dance at the time. Each of the three works presented a collage of incompatible elements. Unrelated things happened simultaneously. The audience was left to make its own sense of what it saw — or didn't see. The costumes for Twelve Foot Change/Yancey Dance consisted of long, hooded sweatshirts over leotards, with dark glasses and bare legs. Twelve Foot Change and Tank Dive lasted less than ten minutes each.
In Tank Dive Tharp, wearing heeled sandals and a leotard cut very low in back, spun a yo-yo out of her fist, bounced it once, and reeled it back. Stepping into a pair of three-foot planklike clogs, she slowly folded her body forward into an upside-down L, then straightened from her flat-back position into a forward lean. She stepped backwards out of the flippers and went up some steps onto a tiny stage. She stood for a long time in releve, as perfectly posed as a ballerina, her legs turned out and spaced in a wide second position, her arms reaching out and up from her sides. She descended into a plie, rose again and held another releve, in profile to the audience, absolutely motionless for another forty-four counts, the duration of a recording of Petula Clark's "Downtown."
For Re-Moves the leotards had low scoop necks and three-quarter sleeves, a dancerly effect undermined by the one white tennis shoe and one white glove that the dancers wore, and by the stiff white headdresses that curved up from a squared-off back, which framed their necks and dipped into a triangle bisecting their foreheads. Sara Rudner walked inside of a large hoop, and Margaret Jenkins imitated the rhythms of a bouncing ball. At some point Tharp reached into a bag and took out eggs, which she dropped, one by one, on the floor. Rudner rigged a rope ladder from the balcony and climbed down it with very precise steps and a concave torso. Descending, she uncoiled smoothly until she achieved a stretched-out shape on the floor. Later on, she tap-danced, unaccompanied, in a strictly laid out rectangular pattern that wove in and out of the audience's sight lines from under the curtained-off balcony.
In an annotated chronology, Tharp describes Re-Moves as "a trio in which visibility is determined by the sets: section one, in the open; section two, half-hidden; section three, one-third visible; section four, entirely hidden." An eight-foot-high plywood box was placed in the space for Re-Moves, leaving about ten feet of working space between the box and the surrounding audience. During part three of the work, the dancers circled the box with precise formations and step patterns. As they disappeared from view, the audience could hear their repetitive stepping on the other side of the box. In a revival of the piece a couple of years later, Tharp added a fourth section, where the dancers went inside the box and rehearsed whatever new thing they were working on, heard but unseen by the audience.
Tharp's terse description of Re-Moves, probably written at the end of the 1970s, focuses on the formal structure of the piece and eliminates all its sensual, visual, and aesthetic effects. In a time when it wasn't fashionable to use music, she kept quiet about Jimmy Yancey. The statement reveals the compositional preoccupations that never abated during Tharp's multifaceted work of the next decades. Her noncommittal, anti-interpretive '60s prose suited the posture of neutrality demanded by the avant-garde, as well as her personal reticence and her conviction that the audience too had a job to do in discovering what the dance meant. If playing up to the audience was considered manipulative by the downtown dancers, Tharp positively ignored the audience, wrapping herself and her cohorts in a performing style that was taken as disdainful, belligerent, noncommunicative, and indifferent by some critics for years to come.
At the same time, she was cultivating whatever critics she could win over. She invited them to rehearsals, courted their attention. Don McDonagh and his friend Clive Barnes were early supporters. Barnes, only recently appointed as dance critic of The New York Times, found himself sitting in a corner chair at Judson. Tharp admits now that she had deliberately placed him there so that at the beginning of Re-Moves he would be in a crucial spot. As Tharp describes the moment, "I came out, pushed a stop watch, paced out around the space, fell onto Clive Barnes's shoulders and fell towards the floor — I turned, probably in passe, rolled down his left arm, extended my arm, brushed his knee, and then brushed by all the ankles in that row."
Tharp understood that at that moment the avant-garde was the only place to align herself. Unknown to the participants, of course, 1966 was a significant moment in the life of downtown dance and the counterculture, a peak, perhaps, in the long curve of creative dissent that had begun a decade before with the Beats and John Cage and the abstract expressionists. Compared to the political and social paroxysms that soon engulfed the artists, 1965 — 66 seems a moment of idyllic innocence. Experimental theater, dance, art, and music had so thoroughly interacted and dissolved into each other that the term performance began to seem more appropriate than any genre-specific label.
After the flamboyant high jinks of the Fluxus group, the Happenings, and a dozen other freewheeling responses to the aesthetic rigidity of the '50s, incongruity had become not only acceptable but desirable. Definitions of who could make art had temporarily expanded. Dances were made by painters and performed by lay persons with no previous dance training. Everyday objects, which weren't supposed to belong on a dance stage except as props in a narrative, became a creative challenge. If a flower did appear in a performer's hand, the last thing you'd expect was that the performer would smell it. More likely, the flower would be painted blue in the course of the performance, or inserted into some orifice of the body or the building. The everyday was treated like a treasure and treasures were trashed. Events occurred irrationally and out of sequence. The audience was subjected to shocks and tedium in equal doses.
The downtown artists created performance spaces in churches and studios, and also in gymnasiums, parks, anywhere but conventional stages. Dancing didn't belong on a stage anyway, they thought. Proscenium stages automatically coerce the audience into set ways of seeing. They predetermine the dancers' focus, groupings, floor patterns, and they separate the performers from the spectators, to affect both parties' experience of the dance. Dancers wanted to be more human, less remote and awe inspiring than the precious beings found in opera house performances.
Dancing didn't belong in a dance performance either, if the experimenters were to head off the responses and effects that traditional dancing evoked. During the 1960s American modern dance had begun a decline, greatly accelerated by Merce Cunningham and the downtown performers. The founders, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, and their colleagues, had done their pioneering work in the 1930s and '40s. They had established schools and styles. As the founders aged, their innovative fires cooled. Their work began to look familiar, even formulaic. The passions that had ignited their rebellion against ballet simmered down into a more sensible, rational theater practice. By the end of the '50s, modern dance had become as conventionalized in its own ways as ballet. Bodies were highly trained in specialized individual techniques, and choreographic action was patterned and theatrical. Modern dance's subject matter was often quite contemporary, but it tended to be abstract in a literary sense, asking the audience to see physical activity as a metaphor for psychological interplay.
Leadership was passing to less innovative followers like Jose Limón, Valerie Bettis, Mary Anthony, Alvin Ailey, and Pearl Lang. They enunciated a credo of humanism with statements like this: "The contemporary artist can do no less than to dedicate the power of his spirit and the flame of his art to bring light to the dark places." (Limón) Young artists in the 1960s didn't aspire to carry flames or light up the dark. Nor were they receptive to the words of authority. The two great theorizers of modern dance composition, Louis Horst and Doris Humphrey, disappeared from college curriculums. Young dancers embarking on choreographic careers sneered at Humphrey's book The Art of Making Dances, and didn't see how her advice could inform them. "Dance form is logical," she wrote, "but it is all in the realm of feeling, sensitivity and imagination." Humphrey's point of view, with its underlying idealism, its confidence in the choreographer's right and ability to impose her vision on her dance, struck dissenters as dictatorial. Dance technique and the expressive urges that had given rise to choreography from Isadora Duncan through five decades of modern dance were played out, they thought. Played out and arbitrary and decadent.
Excerpted from Howling Near Heaven by Marcia B. Siegel. Copyright © 2006 Marcia B. Siegel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of ContentsContents
Foreword to the Second Edition ix
1. Leotard Days 1965-1966 1
2. Dance Activities 1967-1969 14
3. The End of Amazonia 1969-1971 28
4. The Entertainer 1971-1973 52
5. Local to Express 1973-1975 79
6. The Big Leagues 1975-1978 106
7. Hodge Podge Rummage 1976-1979 131
8. Family Business 1979-1981 152
9. Romance and the Opposite 1982-1983 176
10. Three-Way Stretch 1983-1990 200
11. The Anti-company 1990-1995 225
12. Near Heaven 1995-2005 250
Epilogue: An Audience of One 277
A Note on Sources 306
Selected Bibliography 308
What People are Saying About This
“Siegel’s in-depth treatment of one of America’s greatest choreographers is invigorating to read.”Wendy Perron