Preludes and Fugues: Choreographer Twyla Tharp Still Laying Down Her Legacy

By M. V. Wood

“I had to become the greatest choreographer of my time,” Twyla Tharp has declared. “That was my mission, and that’s what I set out to do.”

With a reputation as a workaholic and perfectionist, Tharp has indeed become a world-renowned choreographer and is currently marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of her dance company with a 10-week, 17-city tour. But this is no mere retrospective—at age 74, Tharpis determined to keep expanding her oeuvre and laying down her legacy.

Friday through Sunday, Tharp and her 13 dancers will perform two Bay Area premieres for Cal Performances in UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall: Preludes and Fugues, set to J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the second new dance Yowzie, set to the jazz of Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein.

“I couldn’t have created Preludes and Fugues when I was young. I couldn’t have even created it just 10 years ago,” Tharp told California. “I needed to put on those Broadway shows and gain the experiences I did. We’re always learning, and it all goes into the work.” Of the 160 works she’s made in her career, Tharp says perhaps 30 of them are “keepers.” And she places these new dances among them.

That’s saying a lot considering Tharp has created some of the major dances of our time. Deuce Coupe, which she made for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973, is considered the first crossover ballet—she pared modern dance, classical ballet and even some everyday movements into their essential building blocks and then mixed them in a piece set to Beach Boys music. A few years later, Tharp created another crossover hit with Push Comes to Shove, featuring ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Her Broadway hit Movin’ Out, set to the music of Billy Joel, earned her a Tony Award, while The Times They Are A-Changin’, to the music of Bob Dylan, set records for the highest-grossing show and highest ticket sales as of the date of closing (March 2006). She also choreographed works for six Hollywood movies including Miloš Forman’s Hair and Amadeus, and Taylor Hackford’s White Nights. Along with her Tony Award, Tharp has received two Emmy Awards, a 2008 Kennedy Center Honor, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”

While Tharp doesn’t like to play favorites with her dances, she does acknowledge that Preludes and Fugues has a deep, personal back story.

Back in 2001, her company had been the last to perform at the World Trade Center. They danced on Saturday night, there was no show on Sunday, and Monday night’s performance was rained out. The 9/11 attack was Tuesday morning. Tharp recalls standing in her dance studio, listening to the siren wails and wondering how she could justify dancing in the midst of such destruction and agony.

Everywhere she looked—newspapers, computers, TV screens—she saw the same headline: “WTC I/II Down.” Suddenly her mind flashed to another WTC I/II. It’s shorthand for The Well-Tempered Clavier Volumes I/II, Bach’s two-volume set of 48 paired preludes and fugues. “I had ‘Prelude in C major’ of Volume 1 on my laptop and I began to dance,” Tharp wrote in her blog.

She and Bach already had a history. In 1970, Tharp created the landmark dance called The Fugue. No music actually accompanies the piece, but the movement is based on lessons in counterpoint, timing and construction that she learned from studying Bach. “The reward that I felt for doing a piece called The Fugue in 1970 will never be surpassed,” she said. “Because I knew then what an accomplishment it was and how far I had come in order to be able to make counterpoint….”

More than 30 years later, Bach would come to her again in the form of WTC I/II and inspire her to continue to dance. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Tharp wrote in her blog, “has so many different possibilities of color and form and emotion … [and] all live so happily with one another…. His music is a huge umbrella, large enough to accommodate all movement—styles and intentions—and it was this possibility of inclusion and tolerance that allowed me to dance again.”

Tharp told California that the subjects of democracy, justice and fairness have always been a part of her work and are inherent in the material.

“Ultimately,” she added, “my intention is that Preludes and Fugues shows the world as it ought to be.”

According to Tharp, Bach had a mathematical mind and his material supported an ordered and geometrical point of view. “The real world is a much more ragged place,” she says.

But is this ordered, mathematical precision really the way the world ought to be?

“Well,” she replied, “we really ought to stop killing each other.”

In contrast to Preludes and Fugues, Yowzie is “the world as it is”—more rough and tumble, wild and free. Things don’t always go right and there is danger. “How do you deal with that?” Tharp asked. “With humor.” Laughter is the relief of disaster narrowly averted, the feeling of, “we got away with it this time.”

Yowzie has humor and laughter, chases and narrow escapes, loud music and bright, colorful outfits, stunts, gags and special effects. And Yowzie has jazz.

“It’s American music,” Tharp says. “After all, this is who we are.”

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