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Twyla Tharp's 'Minimalism and Me' Showcases Her Artistry Through Her Own Eyes

By Kelly McMasters | December 7, 2018 | People

Twyla Tharp returns to the stage this season at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, proving once again that she is—always has been, always will be—an artist to be reckoned with.


Pictured above: Twyla Tharp and Graciela Figueroa.

In the New York City premiere of Minimalism and Me, Tharp revisits her seminal works, composing a narrative of her life’s creations that stretches across an arc of nearly 60 years. The American dancer, choreographer, and author puts all her talents on display in this new show, during which she lectures, shows pages from her notebooks and photos and videos from her personal collection, all while her small troupe of dancers enact her history across the stage. From her first choreographed dance—essentially one pose held for many minutes—to The Fugue—her foundational dance from 1970, which she calls her Opus One—to the jocular Jelly Roll—a delight that had the audience laughing aloud, Minimalism and Me is Tharp as we’ve never seen her. This show is Tharp through her own eyes.

How did the idea behind Minimalism and Me come about?
TWYLA THARP: A few years ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was doing an exhibition of minimalist art. Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Richard Serra—they were all being shown on the upper floors. And I said, "Wait a minute! We’ve got the same thing going on in dance." The museum said, show us, so I did. We are concerned with the same things they were.

The fantastic surprise of this show is that it is not a traditional dance performance; there is much dancing, but there is also multimedia, with a screen showing documents and films clips, and you spend a lot of time on stage behind a lecturn, talking. Essentially, you turn the audience into a de facto lecture hall with you as professor. Why did you choose this format?
TT: I was an art history major and for four years in college was exposed to the traditions of the painterly and architectural worlds. This sense of context and history has been valuable. In the performance, forms of information slip back and forth: line, music, writing, paint, movement. They speak the same subject in different formats.

Much of the archival work—the tracing papers, the grids, the numbered and lettered scores—look like scientific drawings and code, certainly more engineering or mechanical than art. How did you learn to do that?
TT: I’ve been making drawings a long time. I used to have a small space in a building north of Canal Street where I went to do the drawings because they require a different mindset. The first one I made was for Removes, and I made paintings and watercolors. Naturalistic paintings. I am not a draftsman, I can’t draw the human figure, can’t and never did. But I always had a sense of proportion and scale and an interest in color and shadow. I had no schooling in technique. But renderings representing space and time? Well, sure, I could do that.

Essentially, I did the dances on foot, then I’d pull it out of the mind. That’s the pleasure of painting. A lot of the India ink work is done with a rapidograph, not very sophisticated. In terms of the visual I always had to find a way to coordinate the single parts. It was always about unity.

The movement is very different from the renderings, but that is where the movement came from. People don’t think of dance in terms of context. The dances have questions embedded in them like text. How do we communicate them? It’s not just about pretty dance steps.


Twyla Tharp photographed by Stanley Tharp.

So much of the story you tell in the piece is about collaboration, specifically the kind possible on $50-a-month rent on the loft you had at 104 Franklin Street in the 1960s. Is this kind of collaboration still possible in art today?
TT: The fact that painters and sculptors lived in this cluster of lofts made visits and discussions possible. You would have a discussion in someone’s loft and then run home to execute the idea and hoped you beat the other person to it! There was a kind of push-pull that happens not that frequently. Art works best in a place where a density of work is being done. I find it very exciting to work with and against that energy.

There were a number of painters whose studios I visited and I saw how they worked and how they got from A to B. And that was very valuable for a kid starting out. There was a creative community and everybody thought they were the best and we all still ate in Chinatown for $7 every Thursday night because we had no money.

It became a privilege to work with that much focus. You know who’s in those lofts now and what they’re for. Before it was New York it was Paris, and Paris didn’t hold on for more than 50, maybe 70 years. Who knows what’s next?

You are currently performing Minimalism and Me and you are finishing a book coming out next year. You say on stage that you like to start working on a new project as soon as you finish one, so what’s next?
TT: I never talk about the future, and here is why: it will always change, and that would mean I told a lie, and we like to try to be very honorable. But yes, as with anyone serious, you don’t just work sometimes. I am working all the time.

This collection of dances originated in the 1960s and 1970s, and there is a beautiful collapse of time when we see you dancing in films from that time period and then we see you now, at 77, join your dancers on stage. I couldn’t help but get the sense that by giving us this arc and this very specific point of view of your oeuvre, you are delivering your own retrospective.
TT: The focus of Minimalism and Me is just the business of time and past and history and where you begin and where you go to; choreography as writing and movement; time and how time accumulates. That’s what’s on stage in front of you: the past we are residing in now.

As far as point of view goes, this is something curators do. They curate a career. They find it their place to take an artist’s work and put it in their context. So, I beat them to the punch.

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