No crash course in the history of American dance could leave out the legendary dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp.
She helped revolutionize dance starting in the 1960s. She’s created works with music from Bach to the Beach Boys, eventually choreographing for films (“Hair,” “White Nights,” among others), TV and Broadway (her Tony-winning hit “Movin’ Out” featured music by Billy Joel). She even gets a shout-out from Robin Williams in a classic moment from “The Birdcage,” when he imitates choreographers Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, and then “Twyla, Twyla, Twyla,” he cheers, swinging his arms like rubber bands in a manner that’s . . . well, so Twyla.
Tharp appears onstage herself this month in “Minimalism and Me,” recalling memories of her earliest works, to be performed by her dance company. (The program runs at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea from Nov. 14 through Dec. 9. For info, visit joyce.org.)
At 77, Tharp remains lean, agile, tough (especially with interviewers). Raised on a farm in Indiana, she now lives in an airy, sparsely furnished penthouse in Manhattan, with a large open floor like a dance studio, where she met with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
When you look back on your early works, do you have the urge to tinker with them?
I don’t. To me, that’s a fool’s errand. I make it the best I can make it at the time.
Do you wish you could still be dancing onstage yourself?
Ohhh, stop! Get real! Come on! Is that a fair question to ask a person?
Well, I was curious — given how physical your art form is — how you cope with aging. I see it in my own body — things I can’t do as well anymore. So I’m wondering how you deal with that.
Well . . . I’ve trained differently in different decades. I started with dance. When I was in my forties and wanted to be absolutely in my prime, I trained with Teddy Atlas, a boxing commentator who (helped) train Mike Tyson. In my fifties, I didn’t have the stamina, so I did weight-training. You want to know my dead-weight record? It was 227 pounds. I’ve always thought, OK, not “What have you lost?,” but “What have you got?” Focus on what you have.
So you’re an optimist?
I consider myself a pragmatist. I’m a farm girl.
Ah, yes, used to hard work. And storms that cross your path.
Tornadoes are nasty. They turn trees upside down. (A tornado struck once.) We made it into the cellar but a willow very close to the house was just turned upside down. It was bizarre.
You’re obviously in good shape. What do you tell older people who haven’t been so physical their whole life?
I have a willing body that’s addicted to exercise. (For others), it’s very, very, very hard to get moving. But even just that (she tilts her head to the right) is more than nothing, that (tilting to the left) is more than nothing, that (she brings her shoulders up to her ears, then rolls her head around) is more than nothing. The more you do, consistently, the more you can do. At any age.
Just curious — ever seen “Dancing with the Stars?”
No. I don’t watch TV. I don’t have a TV. I read. I listen to music.
Very few people seem to care much about classical music or opera anymore, yet dance, as an art form, still thrives. People let it into their homes every week.
Dance is physical activity that generates a connective experience in the viewer. In watching movement of any sort, the body perceives energy. When it’s ballroom dancing, like in “Dancing with the Stars,” some people will even be able to flash back to the feeling of when they were dancing themselves. When I look at (my old dance) material, it gets the sap flowing. Also — these shows are competitive . . . and competition has always been a factor in the human soul. It’s about doing better. And that’s a very good thing. What’s not as good is when young people grow up dependent on a judge to tell them how they’ve done, or an audience to tell them how to think. I audition dancers, and I can always spot competition dancers.
What do you look for in a dancer?
They need to be intelligent. I can tell looking in a person’s eyes. They have to be comfortable in their own bodies. And have respect for their training and their own presence in a room — how they occupy space. Do they cut somebody else off? Forget it! Do they have a sense of humor? Are they adventuresome? Disciplined? These are the people I know I can live with . . .are they in optimum condition? (If not), there’s the door.