The Kennedy Center

Twyla Tharp


(Dancer and choreographer; born July 1, 1941 in Portland, Indiana)

She is an American original. And, for all their hip edginess and carefree lines, her dances at once celebrate and create the best of the American dream. From Deuce Coupe to Push Comes to Shove, from Once More Frank to Hair and The Catherine Wheel, from Nine Sinatra Songs and Movin' Out to Americans We, the breathtaking In the Upper Room and beyond, Twyla Tharp has changed the face of American dance. With disarming brashness, she has been clear about her life's work. "Modern dance is not less," she has said, "modern dance is more. It's everything that came before it, plus."

Plus indeed: Since graduating from Barnard College in 1963, Tharp has created 135 dances so far, choreographed five movies, written two best-selling books, won a Tony Award(r) and a couple of Emmys, received 19 honorary doctorates, the Vietnam Veterans of America President's Award, a MacArthur fellowship, the 2004 National Medal of the Arts and the 2008 Jerome Robbins Award. She founded her own company, Twyla Tharp Dance, fresh from college in 1965, and she has choreographed for her own dancers and for many other companies, including the American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, New York City Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

She is, as the San Francisco Chronicle noted, "deadly serious as an artist and distinctive as a dancemaker: There is urbane humor in Tharp's choreography, and a postmodern rigor often clothed in insouciance. Twyla Tharp has created a monumental legacy that is as varied as the dance world witnessed. Virtually all dance techniques are mutually compatible in Tharp's universe, where the classical and the unclassifiable tend to smile side by side."

Take just one typical, dazzling dance, her How Near Heaven, set to a haunting Benjamin Britten score, which had its world premiere at the Opera House during ABT's 1995 Kennedy Center season. Here was a stunningly formal, sensual piece that, like the music, both appreciated and made history. Here was Tharp paying affectionate homage to Paul Taylor and even Martha Graham, and here also was Tharp with an eloquent use of pointework, sublime geometries and an utter urgency built into the movement that were and are hers and no one else's.

Twyla Tharp was born in 1941 in Portland, Indiana, and in 1951 she moved with her family to Rialto, California, where her parents opened a drive-in movie theater on Route 66. She attended the Vera Lynn School of Dance, Pacific High School in San Bernardino, and later Pomona College. She transferred to Barnard College in New York, where she studied with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. After graduating with a degree in art history in 1963, Tharp joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Only two years later, in 1965, she founded Twyla Tharp Dance and, it is no exaggeration to say this—the rest is history.

Her roots are never far. In 1982, Tharp's alma mater gave her its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. In 1996, in a brashly autobiographical, multilayered suite called Tharp!,  the mature choreographer looked backed to her old Route 66 days and created 66, a riotous hit set to bachelor pad music that presaged her later dances to the music of Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. Even here, as always, the fun had a serious overtone—she surrounded 66 with a ritual of Shaker hymns called Sweet Fields that in the ebb and flow of bodies in motion suggested that we are all nearer to heaven while witnessing a rehearsal for the end.

Tharp's first work on Broadway came in 1980 with When We Were Very Young, which was followed in 1981 by a now legendary collaboration with David Byrne on The Catherine Wheel at the Winter Garden.  Her 1985 stage version of Singin' in the Rain burst onto the Gershwin Theater stage and went on to an extensive national tour. In 2002, Tharp's irrepressible take on the songs of Billy Joel, the dance musical Movin' Out, premiered at the Richard Rodgers and ran for three years. Movin' Out earned Tharp the 2003 Tony Award(r), as well as the 2003 Astaire Award, the Drama League Award for Sustained Achievement in Musical Theater and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Choreography, with UK's Critic's Circle National Dance Award following in 2006 for the London production. In 2006, Tharp turned her sights on the music and lyrics of Kennedy Center Honoree Bob Dylan, creating The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Her work on motion pictures has been as varied as it has been thrilling. She captured the beat of the American heart in Milos Forman's film versions of Hair in 1978, perhaps most touchingly in Ragtime in 1980, and winningly in Amadeus in 1984. She collaborated with Taylor Hackford in White Nights in 1985, and with James Brooks on I'll Do Anything in 1994. On television, Tharp inaugurated PBS's groundbreaking "Dance in America" series with Sue's Leg, and her other work has included such other popular dance programs as the video version of The Catherine Wheel for the BBC, and the television special "Baryshnikov by Tharp," which won two Emmy Awards as well as a Director's Guild of American Award for Outstanding Director Achievement.

Her 1992 autobiography, Push Comes To Shove, remains a model of candor and insight. In her 2003 The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Tharp emerged for many readers as at least as useful a mentor for living as she is for dancing. She makes it sound so simple.

"I have always believed a strong classical training is a very good foundation for moving in any direction," Tharp has said. In virtually any direction she chooses, she has given us quite a lot.
Twyla Tharp