Howling Near Heaven

Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance

by Marcia B. Siegel

St. Martin's, 336 pp., $25.95

Twyla Tharp's ballet How Near Heaven, set to the music of Benjamin Britten, was danced in 1995 by one of the nation's premier companies, American Ballet Theater. The ballet's name comes from an Emily Dickinson letter of the same title. Marcia Siegel's addition of "howling" to the title reveals the sometimes-grudging manner that the choreographer's career is presented in this nonetheless significant book of dance criticism.

Its significance stems primarily from the importance of the choreographer to the art world, and the insights of the author. There is no comparable monograph describing this career. An account by Tharp herself discusses major projects but offers little analysis. Many of the primary sources describing her career are available for inspection by permission only, such as material from Ohio State University. Only a few ballets, including Push Comes to Shove, have been televised, and a few have appeared in commercially released movies such as Amadeus, White Nights, and Hair.

A notable contribution of this author is her analysis of individual ballets and her attention to the development of the Tharp style. Works devoted to the evolution of style are common in art historical scholarship and musicology, but in dance history they are rare. Perhaps this is due to practical considerations, where decades of video footage required for stylistic chronologies are rarely extant. Those dance scholars who have seen a great many performances tend to be critics who write for newspapers or journals. Siegel is a critic who has turned her talent to book.

Her text opens with Tharp's first concerts in Manhattan's Judson Memorial Church, and describes her works and performances to the present. She supplies background on the gestation and content of most ballets, with comments from Tharp dancers or coworkers, as well as from critics. Scholarly footnotes are swept into endnotes, so as not to distract casual readers. A chapter might cover one year or five, and some chapters consider different aspects of the same year with chronological overlap. Even so, the effect is balanced and shows a vibrant career in progress.

Anyone who reads Siegel's criticism, and then has an opportunity to see a Tharp ballet, will no doubt enjoy the ballet more. Beauty in a ballet may be obvious; originality and wit, not so obvious. Consider Push Comes to Shove. It's choreography plays on what a ballet "ought" to be. The few times I've viewed it on television with my family, I notice that I am the only one who laughs. The reason, I think, is that one must be intimately acquainted with standard ballet forms in order to recognize Tharp's comic aberrations. I found it almost a relief to read Siegel's clear analysis of Baryshnikov's solo:

At first glance his solo seemed merely a string of alternating ballet steps and pedestrian movements, taken at maximum speed. He launched into ballet flash[iness]--multiple pirouettes, leaps, fancy leg designs and foot changes--interrupting this offhand virtuosity to rake his fingers through his hair or sink into one hip as if waiting for a bus. But in a sense, the street gestures are the least surprising thing about what he did. It's as if Tharp planted [the street gestures] there in order to establish an antithesis to the ballet steps, but what's in between is most interesting. Some part of each step is done in standard form, but the dancer's preparation, attack, and alignment reshapes it.

Siegel explains the juxtaposition of the steps in standard ballet vocabulary, and how Tharp's attacks and alignments create the unexpected and the comic.

The core of this choreographer's talent is, perhaps, her intellectualizing of the creative process. Each time, she starts with some initial idea or problem that inspires the structure. This idea is no secret, and she has given lecture-demonstrations to explain the concept behind the work. The concept gives the ballet an intrinsic logic and a structure independent of the music. That is why a work might be created to one score and performed to another. In her second book, The Creative Habit (2003), Tharp shares her method with those in any field who must produce something from nothing.

Thinker, writer, athlete, artist--who is Twyla Tharp? Siegel's purpose is to delve into the ballets and not their creator's character. In this she succeeds admirably. Occasionally, she slips in character traits, such as this passage about a woman who has "the talent, the ego, and determination to make an individual style. . . . At once a rebel and a puritan." Yet adjective strings run shallow, and a truer picture comes from how Tharp has reacted to people and events, as may be gleaned from Siegel's narrative.

The respect between Tharp and her dancers overturns accusations of egoism. The choreographer, even in her early twenties, led a group of dancers of the same age. Some musical ensembles work in a similar way--one writing works that all perform together--but dancers don't read from a score. Teaching parts to dancers requires the human factors of rapport, respect, and a degree of distance. Whatever it takes, Tharp seems to have gotten it right, and the evidence in most cases has been strong loyalty between her and her dancers.

Nor is she egoistic about her choreography. She gives her dancers the artistic freedom to adapt her moves to their bodies: "Tharp was offering her dancers a challenge and an opportunity. For her that meant offering them love," writes Siegel. She has also been responsible financially. In 1972 she won an award for younger artists. In a public show of respect, she divided the thousand-dollar prize into two checks, and gave them to her two dancers during the award ceremony. More important, she tries to pay dancers what they deserve, and endures a busy touring schedule, even though it cuts into her creative time.

Why do such character strengths seem buried in Siegel's narrative? Why were unattractive photographs selected for the cover portrait and back cover shots, and within its plates, when the choreographer is, in fact, beautiful? Sadly, omission of the personal good and emphasis on the bad is a pattern in this book. Recall the title, Howling. Notice, too, that it is dedicated to two Tharp dancers and "all the others who made Tharp dance"--as if Tharp's own talents would have been diminished without these brilliant dancers. More subtle is the repeated pattern in which a paragraph describes some accomplishment but saves for the last sentence a verbal sting. Those acquainted with Tharp will find the author's biases achingly apparent. The pity is that those unacquainted with Tharp may not recognize them.

Judith Gelernter, who teaches in the library and information science program at Rutgers, writes frequently about dance.

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