Guest post by Selene Carter.
The Twyla Tharp Dance & Film Collaborations film series celebrates the singular opportunity IU Bloomington students have to study the creative process of one of the greatest American artists of our time. Tharp transcended the limits of concert dance into Broadway, TV and film. She shaped the twentieth century and continues with her innovations and creative ideas.
The two films being screened showcase Tharp’s collaboration with twentieth century filmmaker Miloš Forman, Hair (1979), and her work with the iconic dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in White Nights (1985), directed by Taylor Hackford.
Learn to think and move like a creative genius: The IU Tharp Course
Twyla Tharp and IU offer a groundbreaking new course on campus bringing her creative processes to students in any major: THTR-D 125 Twyla Tharp Fundamentals in Movement & Creativity –needing no prior dance experience to enroll. The class features her original choreography, allowing students to learn her creative process, and apply their own innovations by solving spatial problems, exploring physical limitations and embodying new ideas in real time. Whether in Business, Science or the Arts, this General Education course combines Tharp’s innovative procedures with technology, giving the experience of thinking like a creative genius. For more information about the IU Tharp course, click here and here.
Celebrating Tharp on Campus: Ballet & Contemporary Dance Get Together and Blur Lines
These films highlight the Tharp course and share with the greater public this pioneering step in higher education integrating arts, the body, and learning how to think in new ways. This year in an unprecedented collaboration, IU Ballet and IU Contemporary Dance will join forces to stage Tharp’s dance Deuce Coupe (1973) performed by ballet majors in the Jacobs School of Music with contemporary dance majors in the College of Arts & Sciences. This merging of casts from different dance styles is how Tharp originally created and staged the dance featuring classically trained ballet dancers with her own original dance company members who came from a modern dance background. In the time preceding the premiere of Deuce Coupe lines dividing ballet and modern dance were more starkly drawn and rarely crossed. Tharp blurred those lines.
Commissioned by Robert Joffrey for The Joffrey Ballet, Deuce Coupe stands both as Tharp’s first major commission and the first cross-over ballet, a dance that forms a bridge between modern and classical styles. Set to songs by the iconic American band The Beach Boys, Tharp merged her company with the Joffrey Ballet and created a work that showcased each company’s strengths.
Grounding the piece in classical technique, a solo ballerina dressed in white unflinchingly executes the entire ballet vocabulary from “Ailes de Pigeon” to “Voyagé” throughout the dance. She is the eye of the hurricane as the rest of the dancers swirl and boogie around her.
Tharp hired graffiti artists – artists considered vandals and criminals at the time – to spray paint the backdrop live onstage, challenging the exclusivity of “high art.” Scrolls of white canvas were slowly rolled upwards, eventually covering the entire backdrop with the artists’ tags.
— Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation, 2018
IU audiences will have an opportunity to see Deuce Coupe twice this year, first at the IU Fall Ballet and next in the annual winter concert of the IU Contemporary Dance Theater, Making Spaces, in February 2019.
IU has the distinct honor of having two esteemed professional dancers on campus this year, both who have worked extensively with Tharp: Richard Colton, who is a featured dancer in Hair and an original Tharp Company dancer, and Shawn Stevens, who also danced for New York City Ballet, performing works by Tharp and Balanchine. They will be working with the Ballet and Contemporary Dance students, teaching them Deuce Coupe and getting it ready for performance. Stevens teaches the Tharp course on campus as well.
Personal Musings on the Impact of Tharp, Hair and White Nights
Growing up as a young dancer in Indianapolis I had no idea the impact Tharp had on my day-to-day life and expanding world. I remember going to see the movie Hair with my family when I was ten years old in 1979. The incomparable dance sequences set in New York City’s Central Park, featuring Tharp’s dancers moving with the horses mounted by policemen, and embodying the psychedelic, hyper-sensual, kaleidoscopic era of the 1960s were later parodied and re-staged in the film The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005). The original sequence in Hair is stellar, a brilliant encapsulation of how dance, with its mutability of time and space, expressed the feeling of the 1960s counterculture revolution like no other medium could. The dance sequences filmed by Forman and edited by Alan Heim (who also edited All That Jazz by Bob Fosse) showcase Tharp’s brilliance in creating movement that could exist outside of a theatrical setting, off of a stage, in the center of the action of the world. Another term for this is dance beyond the proscenium.
As a young artist, Tharp was at the center of this revolution herself and worked in Central Park in a different context, before her work with Forman on Hair:
Twyla didn’t have the slightest interest in hearing the same applause every night from that stage: nor did she covet the theater’s dressing rooms orchestra pit, and wooden bleachers that could hold almost two thousand spectators. If I interpret her thought correctly, she wanted her dancers to move across the meadow like an element of nature; she dreamed that the spectators would stand and walk among the dancers as if strolling through an orchard. She also wanted the dancer’s movements to be “natural,” and though there was an obvious contradiction between this aesthetic ambition and her technical demands, she meant that she was seeking an antiformal language of movement that…would be unpredictable in its sequence and devoid “theatrical” structure.
In the early sunlight and the grassy scent of morning, surrounded by a dense green wall of trees, isolated from the noise of Central Park West and Fifth Avenue, whose tall buildings frame the meadow, I felt as if my breathing were forming stanzas, the verses of a long hymn thanks to Twyla, the park, the sun. Out of the corner of my eye I saw equestrians trotting past and football players hurling themselves through the air, and I like to think that all of us — the horses and their riders, the athletes, and the dancers — were caught up in the delight of sharing this marvelous, improbable New York moment.
— Alma Guillermoprieto, Dancing with Cuba, p15, Vintage Books, New York, 2004, first published as “Dancing in the City” in The New Yorker Magazine, February 10, 2003
I went to see White Nights as a sophomore in high school. Dance was in the 1980s mainstream then, while Keith Haring was still on foot, graffiti-ing New York City with a piece of chalk, and AIDS had not yet erased over half of the dancers of the time. Baryshnikov, or “Misha,” was the hunky ex-pat with the bedroom eyes, and Hines was the sine qua non of contemporary tap, a hoofer with a hip-hop beat. I have it on authority from several women my age, including IU’s Sarah Drue Phillips, PhD, Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Russian and East European Institute, who told me when she saw White Nights as a teenager she developed such a crush on Baryshnikov that her infatuation is what led her to become interested in Russian Studies: “I was 13. More serious motivations followed, but he was definitely the first hook. Those leaps! Those pirouettes! That smoldering gaze!”
Looking Backwards & Forwards
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.
People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.
Once you label me you negate me.
Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.
Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
Purity of heart is to will one thing.
— Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher
Kierkegaard’s infamous words could be Tharp’s. Working with Twyla Tharp in person is like spending time with a whirling dervish. Tharp is a hyper-kinesthetic beast, always in motion, brimming with creative energy and ideas, fueled to create with movement. In recent years she has published books on creativity, collaboration, and mental and physical agility.
As I prepare to re-watch these seminal films of my youth I am thinking about how I will feel about watching the number “Black Boys/White Boys” in Hair:
Black boys are delicious
Licorice lips like candy
Keep my cocoa handy
I have such a sweet tooth
When it comes to love
Once I tried a diet
Of quiet, rest, no sweets
But I went nearly crazy
And I went clearly crazy
Because I really craved for
My chocolate-flavored treats
Black boys are nutritious
Black boys fill me up
Black boys are so damn yummy
They satisfy my tummy
I have such a sweet tooth
When it comes to love
Black black black black black black black black
Because I am living now with the Black Lives Matter Movement, and these lyrics bring to mind the recent viral video of actor Jesse Williams’s speech about being black in the US. Charlottesville. Philando Castile. Trayvon Martin. Hurricane Katrina. How did we get from then to now and what has changed, what has remained untenable, horribly exploitative and racist?
As I write this I think about my own parents who lived through the 1960s as young, earnest, liberal artists. What was it like to watch Hair in 1979, the Vietnam War finally over, and all the assassinated leaders long buried?
What will it be like to watch White Nights again and reflect on the United States and Russia, how it was then and how it is changing now?
“Forty-two years ago I left a country that built walls to come to a place without them. But today, as a citizen of the United States, for the first time, I’m hearing rhetoric that reminds me of the Soviet Union of my youth, where it was a crime, and continues to be a crime, to be different.”
— Mikhail Baryshnikov, August 2016
Dance and film are both time arts. They move through space and time at a similar rate when we watch them. Dance disappears and dancers’ bodies age. Dance is ephemeral. We cannot fix and keep it. Film can be saved, archived, re-viewed. Seeing Tharp’s dances for these films is a rare opportunity to reflect on our collective histories, the personal, the physical and the political.
Tharp hasn’t stopped and isn’t stopping. These films invite you to consider her blazing path through arts and popular culture. Tharp, through her innovative course at IU, invites you to dance. That dance is for every body. That dance is inevitable, and all around us all of the time. Dance is the way we negotiate, communicate and figure out the ineffable, complicated and challenging parts of life. The joyful and glorious parts too.
By screening these films and promoting the IU Tharp course I hope that in another decade or so I will read about a neuroscience IU alumni who took the Tharp course and learned new ways of problem solving by adapting choreography. Maybe I will read about a business entrepreneur or inventor who took the Tharp course and invented new technologies after moving their body and mind in the style of Tharp at IU. Dance is always about innovation and problem solving. Tharp is living testament to this.
White Nights will be shown at the IU Cinema on August 23, while Hair will be shown on August 25, followed by a post-screening discussion. Both screenings, which comprise the series Twyla Tharp Dance and Film Collaborations, are free but ticketed.
Selene Carter is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her work integrates improvisation, site specific performance, interdisciplinary collaboration and reconfigurations of historic dances. She teaches courses in Twentieth Century Concert Dance History, Dance Improvisation and Dance Making, among others.