Twyla Tharp: Dancer and Choreographer Strives for Innovation

Her unique style, tough work ethic, and high standards make her one of America's Best Leaders.

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Twyla Tharp, Dancer, Choreographer

Twyla Tharp doesn't do downtime. That's particularly true with this fall's double whammy: the première of her Sinatra musical, Come Fly With Me, and the publication of her new book, The Collabo rative Habit. She rises at 5 a.m. to edit pages, work out, and go through notes, then rehearses her dancers from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. One could argue that Tharp, 68, has been working with similar structure and intensity since childhood, when she juggled lessons in baton, ballet, flamenco, French, elocution, and acrobatics—to name a few—on top of school.

But all that work pays off. Tharp, seen by dancers and nondancers alike as a kind of choreographer-cum-rock-star for having been the first to fuse modern dance and ballet, has won a Tony Award, three Emmys, a MacArthur fellowship, and a National Medal of Arts. She has choreographed 136 dances for not only her own companies but others, including the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, for renowned dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, and for the films Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus.

To keep the creative juices flowing, might some relaxation be healthful? "It's a lovely thought," she says. "But when you're on two deadlines, you don't have a choice." So overscheduling doesn't squelch the creative spirit? "I don't think that scheduling is uncreative. I think that structure is required for creativity."

Derring-do. Discipline alone didn't get Tharp where she is today. By 23, she was a choreographer and had founded her first company. Her first pieces struck observers with their originality and physicality. Sara Rudner, who danced for Tharp on and off for 20 years, remembers a dance they did in the mid-1960s. It involved walking backward on demi-pointe, zigzagging in tighter and tighter lines. "It was insane. It was torture. And it was wonderful," Rudner says. "I knew I was in the presence of something very special." Yet it didn't take long for Tharp to move from the avant-garde to melding modern dance with ballet, most famously in Deuce Coupe, the Beach Boys set piece commissioned in 1973 by the Joffrey Ballet. She merged the forms, she says, "because I could." Her boldness launched her into the national spotlight. She has remained there ever since.

All of this might make her not just a leader but a genius. But Tharp doesn't believe in the word. "Everyone has a talent. It's simply a question of good discipline, of the good fortune to have an education that meshes with that talent, and a lot of luck," she says. That may be. But if anyone shows how rare—and how potent—a recipe that is, it's Twyla Tharp.