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.