Twyla Tharp, born July 1, 1941, in Portland, Indiana, U.S.A., is the dancer, director, and choreographer known for her innovative and often humourous work.
Tharp grew up in her native Portland, Indiana, and in Los Angeles, and her childhood included comprehensive training in music and dance. While a student at Barnard College, she studied at the American Ballet Theatre School and received instruction from Richard Thomas, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham, among others. In 1963, shortly before graduating from Barnard, she joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company, where she soon established herself as a dancer of considerable talent and imagination. In 1965 she formed her own troupe.
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Tharp’s first publicly performed piece of choreography, Tank Dive, was presented in 1965 at Hunter College. Over the next several years she choreographed numerous pieces, many of which employed street clothes, a bare stage, and no music. With her offbeat, technically precise explorations of various kinds and combinations of movements, she built a small but devoted following. In 1971 Tharp adopted jazz music and began creating dances that appealed to larger audiences. Her choreography retained its technical brilliance, often overlaid with an air of nonchalance, while its touches of flippant humour became more marked. Her pieces, most notably The Fugue (1970), Deuce Coupe (1973), Push Comes to Shove (1976), and Baker’s Dozen (1979), established Tharp as one of the most innovative and popular modern choreographers.
In 1988 Tharp disbanded her company and joined American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where she served as artistic associate alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov until 1990. She continued to choreograph throughout the 1990s, premiering such works as Demeter and Persephone (1993) with the Martha Graham Dance Company and How Near Heaven (1995) with ABT. By 2000 the Twyla Tharp Dance Company was performing again.
Tharp also choreographed for motion pictures such as Hair (1979), Ragtime (1981), and Amadeus (1984) and for Broadway musical theatre productions such as The Catherine Wheel (1981; music by David Byrne), Movin’ Out (2002–05; music by Billy Joel), The Times They Are A-Changin’ (2006; music by Bob Dylan), and Come Fly Away (2010; music by Frank Sinatra).
In 2015 Tharp launched a major 50th-anniversary tour, which included two new works, Preludes and Fugues (set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier) and Yowzie, a rollicking and humourous performance set to a jazz score. She later premiered A Gathering of Ghosts, a work for ABT set to Johannes Brahms’s second string quintet, in 2019. To celebrate her 80th birthday in 2021, she presented Twyla Now, a program at New York City Center featuring reworked duets from her archive and the premiere of All In, another work set to Brahms.
Tharp was named a MacArthur fellow in 1992 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2004 by U.S. Pres. George W. Bush. In 2008 she was the recipient of the Jerome Robbins Prize for excellence in dance and was a Kennedy Center honoree. Tharp also published several books, including Push Comes to Shove (1992), an autobiography; The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (2003), part self-help book and part memoir; The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together (2013); and Keep It Moving (2019). In 2021 her career and creative process were the subject of “Twyla Moves,” an episode of PBS’s American Experience. See also Tharp’s Sidebar: On Technology and Dance.