Twyla Tharp is a world-renowned Emmy- and Tony Award-winning dancer, choreographer and artist who lives in New York, but the roots of her success started on her family's farm in Jay County.
“I learned that if you put something in the soil and you work really hard, you can eat it and you can survive for another year,” Tharp said, responding to Laurie McRobbie at a question-and-answer session Friday afternoon.
McRobbie, wife of Indiana University President Michael McRobbie, said it might be considered unlikely that Tharp's upbringing in Jay County “would find all the ingredients needed to launch such an extraordinary career.”
The event at United Arts Center downtown was part of the Indiana Arts Homecoming Conference sponsored by the Indiana Arts Commission. Later Friday, Tharp was to accept the Governor's Arts Award at Sweetwater Sound, said Kathy Anderson, Indiana Arts Commission chair.
In the past year, Tharp, 77, has partnered with Indiana University to create an interactive video catalog of her works that anyone can access on a laptop, cellphone or other digital device.
Audience members were asked to participate in one interactive project of “The Fugue,” a 1971 choreographic work. As the score rolled by on screen indicating left hand, right hand or both, participants were asked to slap their hands on the table accordingly.
Her dances will be available in a three-part pedagogy, a teaching series, that includes a split screen with one segment a video with dancers performing the work, the musical score and a descriptive text of the movement or choreography.
Tharp graduated from Barnard College in New York after starting her undergraduate degree at Pomona College in California where her family moved when she was 8.
The move to California was “very disruptive,” Tharp said backstage before the interview, but her business skills were honed as she helped run the drive-in movie theater her parents bought.
“I learned that art is a business at a very young age,” Tharp told the 300 people attending her interview. Along with changing the marquee, she learned something about the audience and theatrical timing. During the slow parts of the movie, like the kissing parts, “you had to get in and bag the corn because there was going to be a run on the snack bar.”
In New York, Tharp studied with dance greats such as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. In 1965, at age 23, she founded her own company Twyla Tharp Dance. For five years, she and her troupe worked together every day without pay but created 20 works.
The experience was totally communal and harked back to her Quaker roots. “Everyone did the baby sitting and we made sure no one was starving,” Tharp said.
She was always the boss, she said, just as she was growing up, the oldest of four. “I assumed I had something to say,” Tharp added.
That confidence led to an extraordinary career that included choreographing and dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov and creating the Broadway musical “Movin' Out,” featuring the songs of Billy Joel. She was one of the first to take contemporary pop music and marry it with ballet and modern dance. Her 1976 work “Push Comes to Shove” was remarkably innovative as a crossover ballet.
Tharp adheres to a rigorous schedule of morning exercises and diet. She counseled her listeners to “crunch” for the rest of their lives, do twists, rotations, circle the ankles and “be realistic.”
“I'm a great believer in isometrics,” said Tharp, who still has the rail-thin body of a dancer. She also uses the mat for stretches and “throws in some yoga.”
Tharp was asked about her diet. She said she eats protein early in the day and consumes lots of vegetables and water. Every two months, she allows herself to eat pancakes, to which McRobbie quipped “are you sure you're from Indiana?”
Physical modifications are made decade by decade.
“We need to be flexible in our anticipations, but we still need to be demanding,” Tharp said.