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Twyla Tharp's work comes to the Fox

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2009 - This weekend, Dance St. Louis brings the Kansas City Ballet to St. Louis to perform works by Twyla Tharp.

Her name has become synonymous with modern dance that acknowledges popular culture. Her work has won a host of dance awards, plus a Tony and two Emmys. She has been acknowledged with the National Medal of the Arts and Kennedy Center Honors. To top that off, her success has led to more traditional troupes being willing to experiment and add avant garde works to their repertoire.

Born in America's Heartland, Twyla Tharp studied music, art and language as a child in Portland, Ind. Her family moved to Rialto, Calif., in 1951, where her parents purchased a well-placed drive-in theater. Between working long hours at the drive-in and taking dance classes, Tharp developed her work ethic. In fact, she claims not to have had a social life until college.

Tharp began college in California before transferring to Barnard College in New York to study art history. In 1961, New York City provided exposure to quality dance teaching and a perculating underground art scene that included another new arrival, Bob Dylan (whose work she would bring to Broadway decades later).

Tharp studied dance with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham before briefly joining Paul Taylor as a professional in 1963. Graham, Cunningham and Taylor are considered cornerstones of "modern dance" history. But Tharp was focused on exploring her own creative outlets; and by the early '70s, her celebrated choreography career took off. An important opportunity presented itself in 1971 when Tharp created a dance for the Joffery Ballet called, "Deuce Coupe." It was a pop piece danced to the music of the Beach Boys.

In the mid-seventies, the art of ballet received a vital shot in the arm when Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to America. The Russian virtuoso was an international superstar who feverishly attacked dance opportunities in America. Within six months, Baryshnikov performed seven new ballets. Four were of them were considered modern. Tharp debuted new work at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, in 1975 where Baryshnikov was in attendance.

"It was so unexpected and marvelous that I was swept off my feet," said the dancer. Straight away, Baryshnikov wanted to collaborate. His interest in Tharp raised eyebrows among critics. They felt Tharp was unproven and her avant-garde direction was too risky for the classical ballet star. Baryshnikov felt Tharp's American gestures and the use of Western culture a challenge. Tharp was simply looking to expand his lesser-seen range. "Hours and hours of very technical rehearsals, repetition over and over again," recalls Baryshnikov.

From this collaboration came the dance, "When Push Comes to Shove." It was a pivotal choreographic moment for Tharp. "She transcended the downtown dance scene bringing new found energy and ideas to an unsuspecting audience," says Michael Uthoff, the artistic director of Dance STL. Not only had she created a hit with Baryshnikov, she created a new path for so-called modern dance.

The positive audience reaction helped create a new confidence in large classical ballet companies with regard to new dance programming. "I learned very early that an audience would relax and look at things differently if they felt they could laugh with you from time to time," says Tharp. "There's an energy that comes through the release of tension that is laughter."

Her award winning dance influence reached Broadway, television and film. She's written her autobiography and a book offering self-help for creative people.

"Do not wait for inspiration," she offers, "for it will never come. You must exercise your muse. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits."

In the studio, Tharp crafts highly structured and controlled dances. Often using upward of 500 hours of rehearsal time. Maria Chapman of Pacific Northwest Ballet worked with Tharp this past fall. "Twyla's studio process requires 100 percent participation at all times, from everyone in the room, including Twyla. It's like a total emersion technique."

Four decades into her evolution as an artist, Tharp has created more than 135 dances. She's used ragtime, classical and pop music. She's choreographed to a metronome; and in the late '60s, she danced in silence to show that dance is it's own "construct."

She reunited with Baryshnikov in the '90s for a dance called "Cutting Up." Again, the collaboration and tour was well received.

Throughout her decorated career, Tharp never subscribed to or accepted the label of a "modern" dancer and choreographer. She's more interested in the movement than labels.

"The techniques that are to be learned from the classical ballet are real. And the vocabulary of the classical ballet has been developed over 300 years, she says. The techniques of the so-called modern world in a way are much more recent but in a way much more ancient because they've been practiced since the beginning of time in tribal dance and the beginning of theater."

A selection of Tharp's work from the '70s and '80s will be performed Feb. 27 and 28 at the Fox Theatre, as Kansas City Ballet, under the artistic direction of former Tharp dancer William Whitener, performs "Nine Sinatra Songs" (1982), "Brahms/Paganini" (1980) and "As Time Goes By" (1973).

Christian Cudnik is a freelance writer.