“Look, before you can have paintings or before you can have music, before you can have poetry, before you can have language, you’ve got to have movement.”  Twyla Tharp

Photographs by Beatriz Schiller, Paul B. Goode, Elena Seibert ’77

Few dancers, let alone dance students, ever get to perform the New York premiere of a work created by such an iconic choreographer as Twyla Tharp ’63. But several students in the College’s dance department had such an opportunity last semester, presenting the New York debut of Tharp’s new dance, Treefrog in Stonehenge. One of the most esteemed and well-recognized choreographers of the 20th century, Tharp will return to Barnard as a Distinguished Guest Artist for the 2014–15 academic year. The students worked with Tharp répétiteurs (dancers who teach steps) Rika Okamoto and Alexander Brady, then performed Treefrog in Stonehenge in April as part of Barnard Dances at Miller. Before the performance, Tharp held a lecture-demonstration, talking through her process of creating the dance while demonstrating its various facets. In honor of the event, Katie Glasner, cochair of Barnard’s dance department, discussed with Tharp the process of making a dance, the difference between ballet and modern dance, and how Tharp set about creating Treefrog in Stonehenge.

Movement/How it works

Katie Glasner: How do you create a dance?

Twyla Tharp: Moving. Moving tells me what the idea is. I started walking when I was 2…and every dance that I’ve ever done is a technical exercise. I don’t have a stabilized technique that generates pieces for each new adventure in the making of a dance. Obviously, this is different in the ballet where we have the glissades and the cabrioles and the grand battements, and all of those predetermined directions for movement. In dance we just have, like, go.

KG: You had your first thrust into really popular culture when you merged ballet and modern dance in Deuce Coupe [Tharp’s 1973 piece for the Joffrey Ballet, set to Beach Boys music]. Do you have thoughts about your work being considered crossover ballet, a ballet that merges with other forms?

TT: I had an eclectic training as a child, and it was always the goal that the dancers should be able to step across the fences. When I came here and began studying in the ’60s, you were either a classical dancer or you were a modern dancer. And this made no sense to me. And so I never respected the barricade between so-called modern dance and so-called ballet.

KG: Now, as a field, we’re an incredible melting pot. There aren’t those divisions anymore. I’d like to move on to talking about your return to Barnard. We are very fortunate in the dance department and the College with your coming here next year as the Distinguished Guest Artist. I see this as being an area that could be equally as productive for our students, our faculty, as it is you. I’m curious about what this particular association does for you.

TT: I’m not so sure it’s about me as it is about the discipline, the discipline of dance, and what dance is in our lives. The reality is that people have not got the connection with movement that could be available to them, simply because they don’t have any concept about the number of ways that it touches on their everyday existence. The challenge for me is to help people see that movement is something that has many lessons in it—not just physical lessons—that are very, very valuable. And this is what dance is, because dance is the fundamental form. I always say, “Look, before you can have paintings or before you can have music, before you can have poetry, before you can have language, you’ve got to have movement.”

KG: I often think the biggest compliment dancers, choreographers, get—people who are facile with their bodies—is that anybody thinks they can do it.

TT: Well, that’s the point. They should be able to do it. Does anybody really think they’re going to do Astaire? No. But could they approach what Astaire is doing? Yes. Could they move to the right, the left? Could they circle? Could they even do it rhythmically, accurately to some degree? Would it be valuable? Absolutely. I don’t see dance as being the private domain of the dancer.

Everyone moves. We know this from The One Hundreds [Tharp’s piece made up of 100 discrete 11-second movements], which is a piece that was made for anyone to do…as a kind of expression of the sharing of movement. It’s good to show that there’s a spectrum, from almost impossible to completely accessible, in the same work. That was the problem I set myself, moving from huge sophistication to complete innocence.

KG: Is it possible to move to an innocent place with generating movement and choreography?

TT: I actually challenged myself in that way fairly recently. My family is Quaker, and the idea of Wednesday meetings was everyone went to the church, and if no one had something to say, everyone sat silently; if someone had something to say, they got up to do it. So I assigned the task of, okay, you’re not going anywhere, you’re not doing anything until you get your mind clear and you stop telling yourself what to do, and if you move, you move. If you don’t, you don’t. And I said to myself, okay, can you carry through on that, and start a new move? And I said, okay, we’ll call that one. Now, how many of those can you generate? [Tharp settled on 300.]

And I was thinking of them like a clock. I was thinking about, “tick-tick,” and they had to be equal. I call it the equivalent of a second. They’re a way of documenting the passage of time.

KG: Why 300?

TT: Three hundred is easy. Five hundred gets to be something of a hike, and then I began to find that either I was starting to repeat things or I was purposely not repeating things. And either way, that’s not what I wanted to be doing. The brain’s telling the body where to go, and the whole point was to keep the brain out of it. There are various studies and...you know, there are whole disciplines about keeping the brain out of it.


KG: What was the task with Treefrog in Stonehenge?

TT: The task was to write a piece for students that would have its lessons embedded in a performance piece, because when I was a kid, I studied keyboard, and always was very grateful for the composers who had written their lessons in the form of beautiful music, such as Bach or Debussy. And I saw no contradiction between the study of technique and the performance of something that had communication in it beyond just the training of the muscles.

And I wanted to make something that would be appropriate for young people who didn’t have a lot of professional experience—that would be put into a circular configuration for a number of reasons, but amongst them, so that they would be compelled to work together rather than just dealing with themselves in a class. Putting it in a circle, keeping people moving all the time, trying not to let the dancing student sort of go to the side and hang out for a minute and a half while the other group goes. Keep them all going. Stamina. Build endurance.

The circle is also a very interesting structural form, both ritually and in terms of its relationship to time. Circle is a result of right and left combining, so that the impact of rotation and revolution creates all kinds of combinations and possibilities that many students are not aware of. They should be. And the particular circle that I selected, namely Stonehenge, is defined by the various facings of the plinths that make it up, so that the circle rotates x number of degrees from each member to each member, and it’s very important that students learn to operate on fronts other than just the obvious audience, or the mirror.

I chose Stonehenge because of its configuration and also because of its ritual connections. There is a theory that Stonehenge—that if in the summer one stands exactly in the center of the thing and looks down the alley that went to some other area—which they’re not sure what it was—there’s something called the heel stone, which when the sun rises, the summer solstice is exactly documented. So in that sense, Stonehenge is also time as well as space. Very elegant.

It’s important that the materials of Treefrog in Stonehenge get evolved to a point where the student can feel as though they are experiencing the depth of the project without me. And the goal is that they won’t be there, either, and that the materials that they use will be refined to a point where a student can take these materials and put it up themselves exactly like a cook does from a recipe, or a play is put up from a text, or a symphony happens from a score. The material should be available to them in the same way.

I think one of the problems for dance in the culture is it does not have gravitas. It does not have gravitas because it does not have materials. It is effervescent; it disappears. If it has tangible assets, it becomes something to be considered in a different way. Why shouldn’t it be possible for a person to write a dance in exactly the same way it’s possible for a composer to write a piece of music?

KG: So how do you go about setting down a dance in a way that doesn’t need to be taught from one generation of dancers to another, but so that people can learn it?

TT: Treefrog in Stonehenge is extremely sophisticated. And it’s taken a while to learn how to capture that movement, and what needs to be said in order to pinpoint it. And you know, after thinking about it for quite a long time, it was possible to write out, before the dance was made, what I would need after, which was the adventure.

So I would do a phrase. Then I would figure out, okay, where’s this phrase going to be put in the context of the whole, and what kind of spatial configuration do we want, what kind of tempo? We didn’t have any music yet. The music was written later, too. What kind of tempo shall we have? What kind of length shall we have? So, you know, it’s essentially like the movement became colors: blue, red, and green. Now let’s make a painting. And that’s what happened.

This piece is an experiment in the sense that I didn’t know any of the 16 dancers, and it was not made for individuals; it was made generically. It’s a very Bachian kind of concept, fugues and counterpoints. You put one voice in, and then the other voices are adjusted and adapted, whether it’s a prelude or a fugue, and you know, you’re going to have a different kind of harmony and so forth. It’s very abstract. With specific dancers, depending on how much you want to take each one of them into account, you can make a portrait. I’ve made many portraits of many great dancers. And these could never have been done on a computer, because who and what that person’s portrait is going to become, becomes that in the studio, in the working. You don’t know in advance. You only know later. That’s a different deal.