ANNA SALE: I want to actually start in, in a somewhat unconventional way because we are thousands of miles across, uh, the country from one another. Um, is there a way that you can suggest that we both move our bodies to help us be—
TWYLA THARP: Yes, you can do what I'm doing now. If you were here with me, you would not need me to instruct, but we are sitting in our swivel chair and we are moving our knees from side to side and we are rolling our heels to the outside as we rotate from side to side. And we're shlumped. And we're concerned about the shlump and we say sit up straight! So we do that, we have to adjust. It, it's a big deal. You got to get your chair in much closer to the table. Now you're adjusted, you're sitting up straight and you're still wobbling from side to side. You're with me? Good.
AS: Mmhm, yes I am.
AS: And I am five four, and my toes are barely hitting the floor. Are your toes, are your feet firmly planted on the ground in your chair?
TT: Yes. And I'm five three. Get down!
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Twyla Tharp is a 5’3” giant in the world of dance. Since launching her career as a choreographer and dancer six decades ago… she’s become best known for blending classical elements of ballet with more modern styles.
She’s also known for a certain kind of rigor, both in terms of her technique and the discipline she brings to her work. That’s something she’s documented in books like “
She’s 78 now, and still choreographing new works. And she told me days off… are not a big part of her life.
TT: Uh, I try not to have them.
TT: Yeah, basically. No, uh, Sunday for me, my family, uh, is Quaker and Sunday is a very special day. So working through a Sunday is difficult, but I do do it sometimes. Uh, uh, but on, on those days, uh, what would I do? I would probably still stretch a little. I mean, the body can't just curl into itself, uh, and then read and do everything more slowly, everything that one always wishes during the week, oh if only I had time, maybe I wouldn't have burned my coffee. I made that up. My coffee is always burned no matter how much time I take.
Twyla was born in a farming community in Indiana, and in 1950, her family moved to California, near San Bernardino. Her family ran a drive-in movie theater, and Twyla was put in music and dance classes by her mother, who believed she would be famous.
TT: She ruled the world, uh, and she was incredible. Um, so I've always been highly programmed
AS: Highly programmed.
TT: Yeah, highly programmed and people say, well didn't you resent it and weren't, you were rebellious, no I was too smart for that. I did what I was told to do because my mother made certain that the instruction that I received was the very best that she could find. And I learned a lot as a kid and I'm very grateful that I didn't rebel.
AS: What for you was, was the, the, the itch that that prompted you to move from California to New York when you were in college?
TT: Oh, I got kicked out of the chapel midterm for making out.
TT: And so the—
TT: the college decided that I should leave midterm or or whenever I left. Maybe it was the end of freshman year.
TT: Yeah, that's how I tell the story. I think it works.
AS: [laughs] Did you, as you were getting to know the landscape of dance and dancers in New York City, did you have a sense of where you wanted to fit?
TT: Well, that is a very interesting question. How long do we have for the answer?
AS: As long as you want to give me.
TT: I mean, my classical technique, uh, was something, but I knew it wasn't really, uh, top drawer. Uh, so I came here to accomplish what I could of that, even though at the age of whatever, 19 or 20, it was too late. Uh, but I worked very hard, and what I saw were the people who had started doing this much younger, working at this level much younger. And I was smart enough to stand behind them and learn from them, but to also realize, 'You know what, babe, your triple pirouette to the left sucks. I think you better find another occupation'. So I continued working classically, but I had transferred to Barnard College and had partially come to New York to study forms of dance that were not available in Southern California, basically so-called modern dance. So I am going into the gymnasium in the bottom floor of Barnard's main building for my first modern dance class of all times. And I go in the door and the teacher says, "We will now dance a sunrise". And I said to myself, 'I don't think so'. I turned around, I walked out, I went to the Dean, I said, "I did not come here to dance sunrises. I came here to study modern dance. Martha Graham is teaching. Merce Cunningham is teaching. I’ll go study with them and you will give me credit". And she said, "Okay".
On top of her college classes, Twyla started taking two, sometimes three dance classes a day at different studios around the city. And while she was learning a lot from her teachers, she was also figuring out her own style.
TT: I said to myself, 'Well, okay, Merce does great what he does and Martha does great what she does, but I don't want to do what they do'. Go see if you can figure out what you do want to do. And I think ultimately that's how I became, uh, my own dancing person.
Twyla graduated from Barnard in 1963, and quickly got a job as a dancer for Paul Taylor’s company, another major modern dance ensemble. Just two years later, she choreographed and premiered her first work, Tank Dive, and decided to form her own dance company.
TT: My first five years were spent with a remarkable group of women. And these ladies, uh, and myself worked every day, all day in any space we could find. Uh, the Judson we'd go and sign up for. But you couldn't occupy the space the entire day, every day, every week of the year. So you had to find other alternative spaces, and so we went to three or four condemned buildings and managed to get in and rehearsed in them for a while. And nobody got paid anything. Excepting if we got a gig that paid, we split it between us all evenly. And that's how it worked. And we did it because we wanted to do it.
AS: So no one got paid anything with that company.
TT: You didn't expect the the dancing was going to support you financially. That's not why you were doing it. You were doing it to dance.
AS: Mmhm. What kind of apartment were you living in at the time?
TT: I had a loft.
AS: How many people did you live with?
AS: Yourself in a loft apartment just out of college?
TT: No apartment. No apartment. Hello. There was no elevator. There was no shower, there was no hot water. There was no kitchen. It's illegal to be there. It's not an apartment. It's a loft. It's space.
AS: I see.
TT: It’s space.
AS: I see. I’m not picturing the right thing. Did you, did you go out at night on nights off?
TT: No, I'm a dancer. Listen, I gotta be up in the morning. I gotta be in class. I didn't do the scene, and I consciously did not do the scene because I wasn't there to occupy party space as a dancer.
TT: That was not my intention.
AS: So you wouldn't go out, you weren't going out and taking it in? You were going to bed and taking care of your body.
TT: Yeah, I was, I was invested in examining the possibilities of human movement in dance. And furthermore, I knew even at that age that the scene was a distraction.
AS: Huh. A distraction how? How did you see it at the time?
TT: Uh, because it, it has its own, it has its own priorities, which is, aren't we all very cute? Uh, and I just wanted to know well, sure. But what can we do?
The Twyla Tharp Dance Company took off. It was touring internationally, and in 1973, she made her first crossover ballet, “Deuce Coupe,” set to songs by the Beach Boys.
Her personal life was changing too. In 1971, she gave birth to her son, Jess. But pregnancy didn’t slow her down.
TT: I turned it into a project. Uh, I managed to get, in this period of time, my very first video deck. So I was carrying a Panasonic up and downstairs with the tripod, with a Wollensak, uh, you know, with the camera, uh, in order to set it up in the corner and be able to document, uh, one reel every week, on which I would record a half hour of improvisation to the same piece of music. And I acknowledged as the pregnancy developed that there were things that I should cut out, like for example, battement to the back should go, uh, and you want to be really careful about how you torque the pelvis when you're throwing the leg to the side. But I continued to do very aggressive movement, which I do have on camera right up until the day I went in. I was doing some very aggressive falls the day I went in or just before and my son looks at them, he goes, "Mom, oy!" I said, "I know. I don't know".
AS: So every week during your pregnancy as your body is changing, you have this, you have this record of how your body was changing and how your movement was changing.
TT: Exactly. And, exactly. What what I, what, how I was restricting the range of my movement.
AS: That's so, it I, what a way to deal with the frustrations of pregnancy, to turn it into a curiosity.
TT: Uh, eliminate them, right?
TT: Make it into a major celebration of what you can do. It was extreme, but, uh, I think serviceable.
AS: And after you, you were a single parent after about a year, is that right?
TT: More or less.
AS: So how did you, how did that work, early parenthood and work?
TT: Not easily. Not easily. Uh, for one thing, I went back to the loft. The loft is, as I said before, without elevator, straight up 78 steps. So now not only am I carrying the groceries, the laundry, and the Wollensak up 78 flights, I have a child.
TT: Uh, and this loft is still illegal, which means diapers cannot go into the trashcan on the corner. They gotta go at least four or five blocks away. And you are tearing up envelopes so you don't have your name and your address on them, stuff like that. You do become a bit paranoid. But that was essentially our home base for several years, uh, before he needed to go to school. Uh, then I moved uptown.
AS: Who was helping you?
TT: Uh, I had begun to form a small administration. I mean, everyone who was working in the company at that time uh loved him. The only rule in the studio was don't step on the kid. Because he'd be crawling around and, you know, be up and about. And I figured, well, gee, he's a lucky one. He's got lots and lots of moms, this is great. Well, maybe. Uh, but, uh, they were very generous with him and I think that, you know, it's a lot for a kid to take in. Uh, and then he began to have his own life when he went to school.
AS: Yeah. And he announced when he was 11 that he wanted to go to boarding school?
TT: He did. And that seemed probably reasonable because the company at that point was becoming uh, much uh more established. Uh, and we were touring a lot. And it was a very real split uh between the time and attention and presence that I could have with him and still function with the company and I was still performing as well as making the dances. And you know, when he said he wanted to go to boarding school, I felt it was an option that should be considered because there he would be in a, in an ongoing situation where people could be giving him full attention.
AS: And for you, when you think about the relationships that you had with the people in your company at that stage or, or even even ongoing, I mean these, these are relationships that you have for many, many years. Have you thought of them as part of your family? Have you thought of them as employees?
TT: It’s both. It’s both. And it's an interesting question because uh many modern dance companies, of which there are not many, but certainly Merce’s, Paul's companies, the Taylor company, uh, they did connect too as family. But neither Merce nor Paul had children. They didn't have a family. Jess is my family. The company and people that you dance with, move with intimately with, that kind of connective, uh, you're in the trenches, uh, have a very special relationship. But it ought not be, for everybody's sake, confused with family because, you know, come Thanksgiving, people split.
AS: So having your own son, having Jess, kind of helped you see that distinction.
TT: Having a child gave me an anchor that otherwise, uh, would, uh, there would have been periods of time when I would have been without a North star.
AS: Hm. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? How has that worked?
TT: Only if you stop whispering.
AS: Can can you tell me a—
TT: Thank you.
AS: Let me say it, let me project it more.
TT: Thank you.
AS: I, I was slumping, I need to push
TT: Don’t slump!
AS: I need to sit up more.
AS: Ah. I'm noticing my posture has, okay.
AS: Um, can, can you, you mentioned your North star, he has been your North star.
AS: And, and I, I just said, um, can you tell me more about that? That's, that's a striking way to describe—
TT: Well when, I mean you’re a mother, right? You're a mother, uh and that umbilical cord in a way is never broken. Uh, so that child is your North star, uh, and you want to spare them any pain and you want to give them every advantage. Uh, and that's what a parent is.
Coming up, Twyla talks about what she’s learning in her current phase of life, and how she feels about getting older...
TT: I have been in a singular position. Um, most classical ballerinas, uh, have retired close to the age of 40, certainly by the age of 45 because they're limited by the repertory. They're limited by the Swan Lakes. They're limited by the Giselles. The roles don't change. They change. For myself, as I continue to dance, I'm in charge of the role. I change the role to what I can do. And I always assumed that I would go as long as I would go. End of story.
We often hear from you that when a particular guest or topic on our show reminds you of someone in your life, you send them a link to the episode. Maybe with a little note explaining why it made you think of them, which is a really loving thing to do.
So, we decided this Valentine’s Day, we’d like to encourage all of you to do this: pick out an episode of Death, Sex & Money for the people you love, and send them a link to it.
We’ve made this easy for you. At deathsexmoney.org/valentine, you’ll find a shortlist of 20 episodes of our show that seem especially appropriate for Valentine’s Day. You’ll also find a Valentine there that you can download and send along with your suggestion. Yes, we made a special Death, Sex & Money valentine card.
There’s also a link to our entire episode archive at that page if the episode you’re thinking about didn’t make the shortlist. Again, that’s all at deathsexmoney.org/valentine.
One of the episodes that is on our Valentine’s list is with actor and comedian Ken Jeong. He came on the show to talk about starting out his career as a medical doctor, deciding to switch careers, and then filming his breakout role in The Hangover, while his wife was going through breast cancer treatment.
KEN JEONG: I did everything in my power to... actually think like a doctor, and to think clinically. I mean, just for strength, you know, because obviously I was emotional. So, to calm me down, I had to, you know, be in doctor mode.
We’re going to share that episode with all of you again… look out for it in your podcast feed… next week.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
In her new book Keep It Moving, Twyla Tharp writes: "Age is not the enemy. Stagnation is the enemy."
But when she was starting out as a young dancer, and thinking about the typical arc of a career...the passage of time was threatening.
TT: Every dancer knows from the moment they start in the studio, uh, and they get into a working situation at 18 or 19, soon they will be old. Every athlete knows it too. Uh, and it's an enormous burden, but it also makes of the time that you have an enormous privilege, and you want to manage your time really, really responsibly and profitably. Uh, and so it makes you very focused.
AS: Responsibly and profitably. Like how, how did you experience that when you were thinking about what your earning potential was across your career?
TT: Oh, I'm not talking about money here. I’m not, this has got nothing to do with money. This has to do with evolving as a physical being.
AS: Uh huh.
TT: I mean, listen, if you want to make money, don't go into dance.
AS: Mmhm, mmhm. Has it been, for someone who has had such a ritual and a discipline around work, when you have noticed your body changing and new limitations arising, um, can it be difficult to have compassion for yourself?
TT: You can feel very sorry for yourself. I don't know if that's the same thing as having compassion for yourself. You can definitely feel yourself as victimized. Um, and as I said before, and everybody does this in every possible arena, 'Oh I have lost so much. Oh, I used to be able to run so much faster, so much further'. Well, yes. Uh, but did every step mean as much to you as these do, right?
AS: What was it like for you to recover from hip replacement surgery?
TT: This was the first ever surgery I'd had of any sort. Uh, so it wasn't just the hip, it was the idea that the body is being violated. Uh, and it's being entered into by something from the outside world that frankly, is out of my control. It was that kind of mental adjustment that I had to make. Physically, it, you know, we're used to pain. Um, I was off the cane in like a day, and I was walking, you know, basically straight out in a week. Uh, but the body was unmanageable. I mean, the balance was not there. Um, and I was kind of completely ungrounded. So it was a lot of therapy. Um, and I was very careful about it because the last thing I wanted to do was to feel it moving out of place and have them go back in. And, uh, the surgery has been, you know, remarkably successful. Um, and as is often said, I sometimes worry, oops, that side's now better than the other side.
AS: What was it like during those days before you were back up and walking? Did you, did you have feelings that felt unfamiliar coming up?
TT: Well, no. Uh, yes. Uh, it, I try always when it it, I'm down, uh, to find what is the value here? What is the lesson I can pull out of this so that I get some bang for my buck, right? Um, in order to, you know, have something thereafter, uh, to value. Uh, and, um, I would say that, it had to do with the, um, the every day, uh, the mundane, the quotidian, uh and that, uh, you are very grateful. You're very grateful and the gratitude, uh, becomes a life of its own. And anything else that you get in a day, a small degree of progress, uh, an idea, whatever, is just icing on the cake. You're, gr, you're grateful.
AS: Yeah. What's your relationship like with your son now?
TT: Very good. My son uh and uh my grandson, uh -
AS: How old’s your grandson?
TT: Uh he is 11, 10, 10. He is 10.
AS: Uh huh.
TT: He is 10. Um, and uh, they're wonderful and you know, both of them in their own ways as well as his wife are, are my best friends. Yes. I could say that.
AS: And you and your son work together?
TT: We do.
AS: How would, he’s sort of your, like your business manager, is that right?
TT: Amongst other things.
AS: Amongst other things. [laughs]
TT: Counselor in chief. Uh you name, agent, uh, leg, legal advice on occasion. Definitely promotional. "Mom, smile more. Mom, make it fun." Right?
AS: Was there a time in your relationship where, uh, you noticed a shift between sort of mother son dynamic to be able, you know, to being able to take um, guidance from him in a way that didn't felt, feel disrespectful or inappropriate?
TT: Um, yes and no. I mean, I think that w, w, and and I value this, that what you have here, two distinct generations, you have two very different modes of thought. I greatly value his capacity. He's, he's a fabulous bridge builder. I, I blow them up, he rebuilds them, my son uh goes on occasion to the same trainer I do and he was accounting to uh the trainer and the trainer goes, Ma, trainer goes to Jess, "Jeez, your mother curses a lot!" And Jess goes, "Yeah, I know she's half wild. She's like feral".
AS: What are the words that you use to describe the phase of life that you're in right now?
TT: The phase of life that I'm in right now? Well, there's the near vision and the far vision. Okay. The near vision is what I call a, a scratching phase, which is to say I’m sort of between, between projects.
AS: Uh huh.
TT: I have a vague sense of what and where I need the next one to go, but it hasn't settled into anything tangible. It's a very uncomfortable place to be because there's no security under your feet. You don't have, you know, a clear path to a clear, um, tangible goal. And that's why the bigger picture uh as to where I am now uh is always about, 'Okay what's the real purpose here? Never mind that we, you know, you got to get a new project going, but why are you doing it again?' Does that make any kind of sense?
AS: That does, that does.
TT: Thank you.
AS: When you think about why, your why right now, why you are working, what is your purpose—
TT: Well, the why, yeah.
AS: How are you thinking about that?
TT: The why is difficult because uh, the body becomes obviously a different instrument. Um, and it's muted if you will. It's like a violin with a mute on it. Uh, you are a different physical being at the age of 78, then you were at 2, or 4, or 12, or 20, 25, 30. They're all different. Uh they all have their own character. Uh, and I'm still, uh, looking to stabilize myself in terms of my physical reality because that's the bottom of the well I always go to when I'm in this phase of scratching. It's like, 'Well okay, what can I do? What can I, what do I have now that I never had before?" Which in my case is, uh, small movement. Uh, and small movement means a lot and I can see it expand into much bigger movement on uh other dancers, might we say, yay, verily, probably younger. Um, but I must not let any sort of envy or resentfulness or regret enter into this picture, which is tough.
AS: When you say you have small movement now in a way that you didn't before, what is new about the small movement?
TT: Um well, okay, so, uh, we have in the world of the classical ballet something called plié. Plié means to fold in French. And a plié is a very deep knee bend where essentially your feet are in an open position, and you bend your knees all the way out until your bottom sits on your heels. That's a deep plié. Uh, I could probably get down, I don't know about getting up. Therefore, I do not do deep plies. Uh, I do do demi pliés. That is a partial plié, and in the partial plié because you're not so critically balanced, you have more range of movement. Uh, so in thinking about that myself, uh, when I transfer that to working with other dancers who do have a perfectly comfortable deep plié, I can suggest to them something I've learned in my demi for their deep.
AS: Hm, interesting.
TT: Hm. That's what I try to tell myself.
That’s Twyla Tharp. Her new book is called
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While Twyla might not be able to show her dancers exactly what she wants in rehearsals anymore, she gets her point across in other ways.
TT: Dancers have a special kind of communication system in the studio. Uh, just a bend or a twist or a little fah-huh will do the trick.
AS: Is that an approving sound? What’s that sound mean?
TT: Oh no, that's a disapproving sound. It drops, uh uh, drops down. Ah-ha! That would be approving! Although if it's really great, I'll be jumping up and down.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.