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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
Twyla Tharp is the greatest choreographer of our era. Her groundbreaking career in dance blended classical ballet with contemporary culture. Now, at age 78, Tharp is sharing her innovative approach to health and aging in a new book. Jeffrey Brown visited the American Ballet Theater recently to ask Tharp what she looks for in fellow dancers and why she is urging us all to “Keep It Moving.”
Finally tonight: A groundbreaking career in dance has led to an innovative approach to health and aging and a new book released today.
Jeffrey Brown went to the American Ballet Theatre recently to stay in step with Twyla Tharp.
It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.
Sternum up. Breathe deep. Shoulders back. Now we stride.
A lesson from Twyla Tharp in allowing our bodies to take up space, even as we grow older, what she refers to as amplitude.
Amplitude, moving out, constantly feeling that you can move out.
As age becomes reality, I think we start to retreat, we retract, we become protective, we become secluded, and we begin to ossify.
But the body becoming smaller. In a way, it is becoming smaller.
Well, that's its problem. Let's just get on with it, shall we?
Tharp is one of the great choreographers of our age, and, at 78, she's got a new dance — we met at a rehearsal at the American Ballet Theatre — and a new book, "Keep It Moving: Lessons For the Rest of Your Life."
I wrote this to help others believe that constantly you can be evolving, that you don't accept the rumor that, as the body ages, it becomes less. It becomes different, hopefully more.
So do you think of this as a self-help book?
I look at it as a self-survival book.
As a girl, Tharp took dance and music lessons of all kinds. In the 1960s, she was dancing and choreographing as part of an important experimental modern dance scene.
And by the '70s, she was creating groundbreaking works like "Deuce Coupe" for the Joffrey Ballet. Set to music by the Beach Boys, it brought together elements of both ballet and modern dance.
She made "Push Comes to Shove" for Mikhail Baryshnikov, part of an acclaimed partnership that included the award-winning PBS special "Baryshnikov By Tharp" in 1984, dance after dance combining rigor and boundless energy. She also choreographed films, including "Hair" and "Amadeus," and the Broadway hit "Movin' Out" to the music of Billy Joel.
Tharp has been recipient of pretty much every prestigious artistic award, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 2008.
In her new book, she provides a series of exercises, and says age is not the enemy; stagnation is the enemy.
We all have that laid on us by our culture. Being squirmy is not really — you can't do this at dinner parties, but this is how you keep your system, your metabolic system rolling by going — you don't do it like this.
Yes. But you can't — I'm going to — you can't do this even in the way we're talking about. But you want me to? You want us to?
Yes, because, if you keep doing this, chances are your body is going to be more productive in the moment, and you will have something left in the evening, particularly as you become older, and you buy into this reality that older folks can do less.
OK, prove it.
Her own physical regime is legendary. We watched an early morning workout at her home studio, breathing and stretching, cycling, and various kinds of strength and resistance exercises.
I could bench my body weight for three, and I dead-lifted 227 pounds to the waist…
… which was twice my body weight, OK?
So — but I developed core strength that the classical dancer doesn't have. Now, in making a piece of this sort for a classical dancer, I can bring that kind of physical intelligence to them and say, try it this way.
In fact, her new dance, notated over three months in intricate detail, directly addresses aging.
Titled "A Gathering of Ghosts," it's made for dancer Herman Cornejo, now 38, who's being honored this season for 20 years at the ABT.
Beyond talent, Tharp says the quality she most looks for in a dancer is optimism.
Have a sense that you can do it, and if you don't, you will fix it, you will make it work, and you're going to laugh this time. No, you haven't failed. You turn it into comedy.
You have had, of course, great success. But you have also experienced failure, which…
Are you kidding?
I'm sorry to tell you.
But you advise us in this book to accept those failures, right, to take risks.
They're not failures.
What are they?
They're adventures of a different kind. You may not have gotten what you set out to get, but there is something to be learned from everything.
There was a profile in The Times that says — I'm quoting — "Ms. Tharp remains among the very few female choreographers…"
Oh, please. Give me a break.
"… to have had a lasting influence on ballet."
And why don't they say, one of the few short choreographers to have an influence on the ballet?
The female nomenclature is highly abusive. It's ghettoizing. And it's irrelevant to what I have done.
You don't want to hear it at all?
I'm not interested.
I'm a worker. I'm an artist. I make dances, end of story.
Judge me with the best. Don't judge me with the best women.
You wrote in the book that you're always asked, how do you keep working? And the subtext, you know, as you say, is, at your age.
What's the answer? How do you keep working?
Day by day, daily. Do it every day. It's what you do.
I look at the past to see there what works and let go of what doesn't work, and build on what does work.
In the meantime, the final piece of advice that you give all of us in this book is, shut up and dance.
That's right, shut up and do what you love. And be grateful and keep doing it. And stop second-guessing it.
I'm getting old. I can't do what I love. Bull (EXPLETIVE DELETED), in a word.
It's going to change. That's all. It's not going to be the same. It's going to be different.
The dance is "A Gathering of Ghosts." The book is "Keep It Moving."
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the American Ballet Theatre in New York.
And we all want a little piece of that.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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