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Tharp and Baryshnikov’s “totally unexpected” collaboration

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In the 1970’s, choreographer Twyla Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov collaborated, resulting in a dance that was “totally unexpected” for the classically trained ballet star from Russia. Archival footage shows Baryshnikov in “Push,” which starts in a modern “slouch” style and continues with “all he’s got.” “It can only have happened between the two of us at that moment in time,” Tharp recalls.

(upbeat music) - Right on the heels of Deuce Coupe ballet theater called and said, you know, would I make a piece for Baryshnikov.

Baryshnikov was one of the leading male classical dancers of the 20th century.

(upbeat music) The guy was phenomenal.

His technique was like, wow!

He was a huge star in Russia, and he'd just defected.

And he hadn't performed in this country yet.

I remember running into Alvin Ailey in one of the elevators, somewhere in some dance building, and Alvin says, he just looked at me and said 'you're going to write a piece for Baryshnikov, you're crazy.

You're going to be eaten alive'. There was pressure.

It was big deal in the dance world.

Here's arguably the greatest dancer in the world.

What are you going to do with this guy?

(slow piano music) There are huge expectations on the part of the audience as to what he should be doing for them.

(slow piano music) He'd seen me dance before we started to work, which I thought was important because that's what I was going to push him towards.

(Tharp indistinctly talking) I had to be able to evolve for him a vocabulary that enfolded some of this kind of, let's just for lack of a better word, call it slouch.

It's a totally different kind of placement from the classical ballet.

And he was all in to try to do that.

(Tharp and Baryshnikov collaborating) - [Reporter] Was there any difficulty that you had from adjusting from a classical style to Twyla's style?

- Sure, it was difficult.

Very difficult I think.

- [Reporter] In what way?

- Well, it's her style.

It's her ballet.

It's really hard.

(Baryshnikov and Tharp collaborating) - It's not easy, I think for dancers who know a perfectly modern dance.

Yeah?

- Sometimes, no.

That's right.

It's not.

But it, (stuttering) - What? (laughing) - I don't think that it's any easier or any harder for, you know, a well-trained dancer who's either classical or modern.

(Baryshnikov and Tharp collaborating) (collaboration continues) - This movement, it's not natural for me because I - I'm born in Russia, you know?

(laughing) - [Twyla] Misha had just come to this country and he was displaced.

He's Russian, classically trained.

I'm from the Midwest, modern dancer.

You could not have found more disparate elements to try to gather together.

I took a gamble, and I opened him in a totally unexpected way, with him doing a kind of ♪ a ya pa pa, ♪ yat ta ha and audience is going, huh?

('Bohemia Rag 1919') And then, when the curtain goes up, Whack!

All he's got.

('Haydn's Symphony No. 82 in C Major') ('Haydn's Symphony No. 82 in C Major' continues) 'Push' was lightening in a bottle.

(audience applauding) It was a moment in time.

It could only have happened between the two of us at that point in time.

Singular.