NEW YORK – The new PBS documentary on dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp is called “Twyla Moves.” In retrospect, that sounds a bit weak.
It really should be called “Twyla Moves And Won’t Stop As Long As She Has a Detectable Pulse,” a title that might perhaps begin to capture the fierceness with which Tharp, who turns 80 this year, approaches both work and life.
It’s a fierceness that led her at one point to take boxing lessons with Teddy Atlas, who trained Mike Tyson, to get in the best possible condition for a piece she was doing. “I eventually had to stop boxing because I got hit and broke my nose,” she recalled in an interview this week. “I said, ‘OK, your boxing days are over.’”
It’s also a fierceness that greets you the minute you begin a phone conversation with Tharp, whose words tumble out with striking speed and rarely a second of hesitation. She doesn’t need long to formulate fully developed thoughts -- nor does she seem to enjoy wasting time. In a recent Zoom group event, she was asked why she hadn’t done more movies. She proceeded to quickly list those she’d done -- “Hair,” “White Nights” and “Amadeus” among them -- with just a hint of impatience.
Given all that, it would seem obvious that something like a global pandemic wouldn't force Tharp off course, or keep her on the sofa binge-watching Netflix. On a recent afternoon, Tharp began a conversation by explaining why she’d had to postpone a few hours: Since 4 a.m. that morning she’d been choreographing a new work with ballet dancers in Düsseldorf, Germany. Choreography via Zoom, she noted, “is very strenuous — very limited from a sensory point of view.”
And perhaps especially for a choreographer like Tharp, who doesn’t simply sit and instruct dancers — she teaches by showing, even now. To be in that kind of shape approaching one’s ninth decade on earth is a challenge that would elude most of us. Part of Tharp’s physical regimen involves sticking to 1,200 calories a day.
“I don’t like carrying extra weight,” she says. “I like feeling what I call ‘on the bone,’ literally very close to the bone. For one thing the feet have suffered a certain amount of abuse, and I like to keep as much weight as possible out of them."
It’s shocking she hasn’t permanently damaged those feet. To say Tharp’s choreography is merely athletic is to understate the way in which it has stretched her artists and herself to the limits. Billy Joel, who collaborated with Tharp on the 2002 Broadway hit “Movin’ Out,” set to his music, speaks of being in rehearsal and watching dancers “throwing themselves around the stage — I was worried about people getting injured! I felt like, ‘Take it easy! Watch out for the end of the stage!’ They were risking life and limb every night.”