Guest post by Shannon Boyer.
This week’s showing of Miloš Forman’s Hair (1979) and Taylor Hackford’s White Nights (1984) is exciting not only for the quality of the films, but how they both include the groundbreaking choreography of Twyla Tharp. An Indiana-born award-winning choreographer, dancer, and writer, Tharp recently partnered with Indiana University to bring her innovative ideas about movement and creativity to the undergraduate classroom. In collaboration with the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance, Tharp (who, in addition to Hair and White Nights, also contributed to other well-known films, such as the award-winning Amadeus  and Ragtime ) introduced the one-of-a-kind course, “The Fundamentals of Creativity and Movement,” to Indiana University undergraduates in Fall 2017, offering a course that combines critical thinking, problem-solving, improvisation, creativity, and dance to offer students a new way to hone their bodies, minds, and confidence through dance built on everyday gestures and movements.
Most importantly, this isn’t a class just for dancers looking to hone their technique: it’s a class accessible to everybody in any body. Additionally, it encourages interdisciplinarity: along with dance majors looking to improve their technique and range, the course is designed to benefit all majors, like pre-law students looking to gain confidence in bodily communication and memorization, or business majors wishing to improve their skills in improvisation and creative entrepreneurship. Indeed, the course’s design and implementation in the classroom is a testament to this: the course professor, Shawn Stevens, has enjoyed a robust career as a professional dancer, instructor of dance, as well as having staged various Tharp works for the public. As her assistant, alternatively, I am a PhD candidate in English who studies early twentieth century literature and have taught courses focused on composition, professional writing, and analyzing literary fiction. As an instructional team, Shawn and I embody the interdisciplinarity key to this course’s unique benefits for students.
As a non-dance specialist watching these films, I can’t help but notice how the unique and energizing choreography represents the ethos of the course. In both films, dance isn’t simply aesthetic; it does something, whether it is disrupting stifling class conventions such as in when Hair’s George Berger sings “I Got Life” while dancing across the dinner spread of New York’s upper echelons, or simply bringing people together in shared expressive movement without stifling individual expression. Unlike some dance forms that require bodies to move in near-perfect synch and align with music to create their desired aesthetic, Tharp’s choreography in these films embrace the different styles individuals express even when performing the same moves. Just watch White Nights’s Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s famous duet to David Pack’s “Prove Me Wrong,” where their distinctly personal styles provide a stunning contrast while simultaneously creating an impressive harmony.
Similarly, “The One Hundreds” and “The Torelli” — the two dances that structure IU’s new Tharp courses — encourage students to make the movements their own by finding how they work best in their own unique bodies. Because that’s the central point of this course: any body of any size, shape, or ability, can dance; moreover, Tharp’s movement is accessible to every body and can offer benefits beyond those of physical movement. Both dances engage the mind’s ability to memorize and improvise, as well as take a set of learned movements and rearrange them in unexpected, creative ways. They also involve community outreach and engagement, helping students strengthen both communication skills and the entrepreneurial spirit that has made Tharp’s legacy one not only as an artist and intellectual, but a successful businesswoman as well.
White Nights will be shown at the IU Cinema today, August 23, while Hair will be shown on Saturday, August 25, followed by a post-screening discussion. Both screenings, which comprise the series Twyla Tharp Dance and Film Collaborations, are free but ticketed.
IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance will offer two sections of THTR-D 125 this fall:
- THTR-D 125: The One Hundreds
Class times: T/H 9:30–11am
- THTR-D 125: Torelli & Treefrog Technique
Class times: M/W 7–8:30pm
Contact your advisor for course descriptions and additional details, or email Shannon directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about the course.
Shannon Boyer is a PhD Candidate in English Literature at IU, with an emphasis in modernist literature and early twentieth-century psychology and gender/sexuality studies. She teaches for the English department in addition to her position as graduate assistant instructor to Shawn Stevens of D-125, The Fundamentals of Movement and Creativity: Twyla Tharp.