Interview | Twyla Tharp

The legendary American dance maker on Broadway, ballet, creativity, collaboration, Scarlatti and scones.

Choreographer Twyla Tharp in the studio with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Choreographer Twyla Tharp in the studio with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Photograph: Todd Rosenberg

From a conversation at 3rd Coast Café & Wine Bar in Chicago on September 17, 2011.

Before I start asking questions, is there anything you would like to talk about?
You know your audience.

Okay. Why Scarlatti for Hubbard Street?
Scarlatti is very interesting because he has not gotten to the sonata form, the A-B-A, the return. It’s just A-A, B-B. And that, when I was listening to [him], was a source of some relief because you didn’t have to remember A, [didn’t have] to get home to it anymore. All you had to do was be observant and note that A never repeats exactly the same, no matter how exact it is. Heraclitus, right? …A-B-A is coming back. It bears a certain responsibility. [And] obviously, Scarlatti: 550 sonatas and this endless well of invention, within this relatively restricted palette. He’s a miniaturist with great scope.

Were you looking for non–A-B-A forms first, and then chose Scarlatti?
I don’t usually look for things. They find me.

How did Scarlatti find you?
I’m using a recording by a friend of mine, Nikolai Demidenko. He played the Diabelli [Variations] and the Hammerklavier [Sonata, both by Beethoven] for me, when we were touring [my works to those pieces].

You’re working again with Norma Kamali on costumes. Was there a particular resonance for you between what she does in fashion and how the Scarlattis sound?
Kamali has done a lot of costumes for me, the first being for In the Upper Room [1986, to Philip Glass]…and then she did a piece [of mine] called Sweet Fields [1996], which is a very good set of costumes. So Kamali is always there and she’s always enthusiastic and she’s a great friend and she’s a survivor and she’s fantastic.

What do you mean when you say she’s a survivor?
I mean that she’s been around for a long time and the fashion industry is not easy. But I didn’t really answer your question. I’m getting there. Kamali is a great colorist who had done some fabric and designs which I liked very, very much. You see, working with Kamali gives me an excuse to go shopping. I have to go to the shop and I’d seen some clothes in there that I thought were really terrific and, about a year later, I said, Hey Norma, you remember that collection? Let’s get together and do a wardrobe. You’ll see. [Her costumes for Hubbard are] very…ebullient might be a good word. Chaotic might be another. Each one of the costumes will be different, and each one of them is also very intricate, in terms of color and pattern, so when the mix of them happens, with this [choreographic and musical] information going on, really fast, I am figuring that it should make the retina crazy, is what I’m thinking.

What, if anything, did you give her in terms of direct—
Nothing. With Norma, I go in the shop, I see something that’s fabulous and say, Norma, can we adapt this? or whatever and she always says, “Sure.” I always find that the best collaborations are when you work with people that know what they’re doing and you leave them alone to do it.

Server: Are we doing okay over here?
I’m fine, thank you.
But I could have, please, some more coffee, and he’d like to participate in one of those, what are those, scones, up there? With blueberries in them?

Server: Yeah, chocolate chip, raspberry and blueberry.
One blueberry, is what he’d really like, thank you.

You read my mind! Now, I want to go back for a bit and talk about the original Tharp project at Hubbard Street, when Lou Conte was directing, and I’m wondering what, in retrospect, was the most valuable takeaway from that relationship.
Well, I always say this: While [the Hubbard dancers] haven’t been dancing [my work] in the recent past, it’s in their DNA. That allows me to pick up where I left off, whether they know it or not.

I noticed, in the studio, that you were working with [former HSDC dancer] Claire Bataille. Was that something from the get-go that you wanted to have, someone in the studio who knew—
I always think it’s a good idea when you have what’s called “institutional memory” in the room.

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