Twyla Tharp’s Rehearsal: Here and Now Forever

From left, Reed Tankersley, Ron Todorowski and Daniel Baker warm up before a run-through.

Twyla Tharp is writing about rehearsing, touring and creating new work, 50 years after her first dance concert.

Erick Hawkins, a contemporary of Martha Graham’s, published a book called “Here and Now With Watchers.” This is a title I always remember when I begin a part of the rehearsal process that involves bringing guests into the studio to watch the dancers run the entire program. No costumes, no lights, no scenics, only dancing so terrifyingly close to viewers’ chairs that those in the front row must frequently pull back to dodge sweat.

In these showings, which I’m in the middle of now, I acquire new sets of eyes. I know what I think of the works, but having an audience gives me other points of view, some of which are radically different from my own. I have been doing this long enough to know that everyone comes with specific agendas and will probably leave with those same biases intact, and that not everyone loves me, though I wish they would.

Even better than loving me, though, is the thought that our viewers might remember a moment of our dancing for a very long time. Dance is considered an ephemeral art form, here today, gone tomorrow, but I know that memory makes of dances edifices that cannot be destroyed.

Fifty years ago, I began my career as a watcher of dance: I studied many techniques of moving in studios. I watched many shows from the audience. I thought and I learned and, like Savannah Lowery, Reed Tankersley and Amy Ruggiero, I took huge pleasure in what I saw. I had became a witness.

There are four sections of “Preludes and Fugues,” one of the two works on our program and set to Bach, that were created from memories of dancing I have from those years. They are offered in tribute to four choreographers whose work has been critical to all I do.

Merce Cunningham’s tribute is set to the Fugue in C sharp minor in Volume 1 of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” Lovingly known as “Slow Death” by the dancers of this sextet, it has movement that is often tightly twisted back into itself. The spatial patterns are designed to allow passage through the stage in private cartons of space. I studied technique with Merce for four years, and some of this time was spent trying to master stillness. Which can be very painful. The approach to stage space I learned while watching his work from the audience. Control within seeming disorder. The artist’s paradox.

”Fugue in D Major” is for Jerry Robbins. Its vocabulary is a combination of mundane gesture with ballet movement mooshed into a trio for men. Jerry was a complicated man. He forged a movement vocabulary that wed street life, jazz attitude and formal ballet in a way no one had ever done before. Every dance he ever made featured uncomfortable alliances, and their theme usually came down to competition: in “Fancy Free,” three sailors for two girls. “West Side Story,” Jets versus Sharks. “The Brahms Handel Variations,” which we made together for the New York City Ballet, blues versus greens. I quietly raged when he took blue and assigned me green because “Who wants green on stage, Jerry?” And he got Merrill Ashley while I had Maria Calegari — both great prima ballerinas, though Merrill was a bit more seasoned. And there the subliminal squabbling stopped, for we swapped ballerinas from time to time and we loved them both. Equally. Green and blue, too, threaded through each other so often that they became blue-green. Ultimately, competition always took Jerry to a complex reality.

Martha Graham is reflected in the “Prelude in B Flat Minor.” From Graham, in her last few years teaching technique, I learned a grand new dancing vocabulary that I relished. How much weight could a small body, mine or hers, acquire with intense training and determination? How immovable in the space could one become, how big, how weighty, how much power, how much mass? So much in the technique she taught was isometric that I wondered, in 1963, had she learned any of this from yoga? So at a party, when I was seated next to her and — what was I thinking, this was Martha Graham and I was who? — asked, “Miss Graham, did you study much yoga?” Her reply was not really direct, but I learned a lot from the coy charm of her reply. “No, “ she said. “But Miss Ruth used to do a lot of that in the corner.” That would be Ruth St. Denis, with whom Martha had begun her career. And when asked by an interviewer what we had been discussing at the party, Martha had graciously responded: “Many things. She is a rebel like me.” The trials and tribulations of being a woman in the line of dance were writ very large indeed on Graham, and this, too, I realized I might be taking on if I proceeded with this line of work.

The “Fugue in A Flat Major” is for George Balanchine. A true fugue, this is structurally the most complex of all the sections in “Preludes and Fugues.” Known in our dancers’ nomenclature as “The King and Queen,” it is built primarily on one basic theme with its inversions, reversals and retrogrades. It features the very basic Petipa vocabulary that I always felt still grounding Balanchine’s later extensions. It was this tension between past and present that made Balanchine so revolutionary for me. I did not know him well, and only toward the very end of his life. During a taping of “The Prodigal Son” in Nashville, I had seen him, stepping into the father role near the end of the ballet, take the prodigal’s full weight and felt the whole studio gasp. At the lunch break later that day, Balanchine took me into the darkened studio and explained that he thought rather than move the cameras, it was more time efficient to move the dancers. Balanchine was ever pragmatic in how best to accomplish beauty.

Each of these artists offered a definitive and very different point of view. While I did not want to make any of their dances, I had complete respect for what they did. I watched to learn — not to ask, “Do I like this?” but rather, “What is it saying?” I am so grateful to have found a place I can go that is so much bigger than myself.

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