The Era of Twyla Tharp

In writing about cultural policy or public relations strategies or political wagers, I don’t want to forget the arts themselves. Years in to this research, I still think dance and theater are where the battles of the era are played out most directly. Opera and classical music were established genres, even if there was some attention to creating American versions of European imports. Dance and theater were younger, more rebellious, less institutionalized–and being put on the same platform at Lincoln Center as these older forms. Figuring out what dance and theater belonged at Lincoln Center—and what did not—had stark consequences.

Ballet won the dance battle. (I think there’s a less clear answer in theater.) But even though modern dance, jazz, and popular dance, were on the margins of Lincoln Center, there are ways in which dancers and choreographers put at the forefront key questions of the era: not only what is art, but where and when it occurs. The Judson Church movement was the obvious center of these challenges in the 1960s, and the people who moved through there and the questions they asked are still generative today. But, by and large, those folks also remained as an avant-garde, a smaller circle of artists and intellectuals that, however influential, had a circumscribed impact.

I’m curious about people who traversed these boundaries more deliberately and with greater notoriety. All of which has led me to Twyla Tharp.

Tharp started in the avant-garde in the 1960s, then choreographed for ballet companies starting in the early 1970s, and moved to film and Broadway in the 1980s. She has incorporated into her choreography almost every style of movement and performed in almost every kind of space to a wide range of audiences over the last fifty years. Yet, so far, I think there’s been little attention to her as telling us something about fundamental about the era. It’s not only that we skip from Balanchine and Robbins right over her to Ratmansky and Peck, it’s that we don’t take her experimentations and traversals as indicative of what was changing in the arts overall.

But Tharp engages the questions that I think are crucial to the era I’m studying: what use is a cultural spectrum between high and low; how do different spaces (Central Park, a museum, a gymnasium, a theater) change meaning and impact in performance; when politics are not central subjects, how are they implicit ones; how does television and film change representation and audience for the performing arts; and—most fundamentally—what does it mean to claim the arts for everyone?

A place to start in thinking through all that: Tharp’s 1973 Deuce Coupe (pictured above) and her “customized” version of 1975.