Oct. 29 2015 09:42 AM

Twyla Tharp Dance celebrates 50 years

THURSDAY, Oct. 29 — Twyla Tharp Dance’s 50th anniversary tour lands on the Wharton Center stage Tuesday, but founder and choreographer Twyla Tharp bristles at the mention of 50 years.

Twyla Tharp
Photo by Walter Whitman

“For the first five years, we were just a bunch of broads who liked dancing together,” she said. “We rehearsed when we could and performed whenever we could rook someone into letting us use their performance space.”

There were no lofty goals for the group, she said. Her approach — an approach that has guided much of her career — was to make the most of her opportunities in the moment. Even when Twyla Tharp Dance became an established entity, it was a purely practical matter for Tharp. The goal, she said, was to be able to pay her collaborators.

“I was simply trying to get by day-to-day,” she said. “I wanted it to be functional for the moment.”

From these modest beginnings, Tharp, 74, grew to become one of the most influential names in contemporary dance. Her 1973 piece, “Deuce Coupe,” shook up the dance world by setting traditional ballet to the music of the Beach Boys. She has choreographed over 160 works, including full-length ballets, Broadway musicals, television specials, movies and even two ice-skating routines. In the process, she has used music from sources ranging from Brahms and Handel to Billy Joel and David Byrne.

This same eclecticism drives the 50th anniversary program that attendees will see at the Wharton Center next week. Fanfares by contemporary composer John Zorn open both halves of the program. The rest of the first half is set to music from J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” while the bulk of the second half is set to jazz music by Steven Bernstein and MSU alum Henry Butler. Her reason for using such a diverse selection of music, she said, is simple.

“Greed. Simple greed,” she said. “I like everything that works.”

When she is choosing music for an evening-length performance, Tharp said she looks for two things.

“First of all is a generic sense of, ‘Oh, this moves.’ That it makes you bop your head. That’s a quality that all the music has to have,” she said. “The next component is context. Does it pair well with the other works, either by similarity or by contrast?”

While one might think that a choreographer would find inspiration in the music, Tharp prefers to take a dance-first approach.

“I start a piece without any music. Just moving and working through my ideas and feelings,” she said. “Once I have a sense of that, I find music that will support that idea.”

In the early ‘60s, Tharp worked with two of the biggest names in American dance, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. The most important thing she learned from their work, Tharp said, is the dedication they brought to their craft.

“They we both very committed to their work,” she said. “And they were not compromising in their work.”

When asked if she plans to retire anytime soon, Tharp answered with the same live-in-the-moment attitude that has guided her career from its inception.

“That is asking me to look into the future, which I don’t have the capacity to do,” she said. “I’ll continue working as long as it makes sense to work.”

Twyla Tharp Dance

50th Anniversary Tour

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3

Tickets start at $37/$15 youth and MSU students

Wharton Center

750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing

(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com