Twyla Tharp on the Road: Why We Go Out

Eva Trapp rolling out her hip in Davis, Calif.

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

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — O.K., you want the fountain of youth, here it is: Travel with a modern dance troupe.

Credit...Nick Coppula

Our group moves mostly by bus and by air. Our home is two pieces of carry-on luggage. We do not fly first class, let alone in private planes. Our accommodations are not luxurious. Good food can be extremely hard to locate. Our crunchy bodies (tired, cranky, pulled into themselves from jumping on hard floors) search out truly scary gyms and pools just off hotel lobbies. These are shared problems — tedious, exhausting and real for the economics of dance on the road. Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck are classic road warriors who take it as it comes. But regularity in the face of change is the touring performer’s mission, and the road is the performer’s laboratory. Our big question is, “Do we play as well in Peoria as in St. Paul?”

I started touring in 1966. We were an all-girl troop. We booked the tour and arranged accommodations, living in sponsors’ basements. We set up the folding chairs for the performances and we did the press. We did it all because it was worth it for us to challenge ourselves as dancers and to learn how audiences were reading the work we did. We were building a career, and we were also in control of our lives. Except when we weren’t. (Who can forget the time the train to Stuttgart split in two and half went north with one of our dancers, Margie Jenkins, and the other half went south with Sara Rudner and me?)

But once I began a company a few years later, there was a more institutionalized structure and that sense of dancers controlling their destiny eroded. The us/them (management/dancers) split materialized, and that is no fun. This time round, while I am a good bit older than I was in 1966, I wanted to return to a group with a stronger sense of unity. For the dancers, this means they can be heard directly, and many problems that might emerge — how to schedule tech time for example — can be resolved democratically. As for me, asking myself to keep up with the dancers, offstage at least, is good for the anti-aging factor. It is also a time for doing business.

Working with dancers in the studio, creating new work, there is a line I do not cross. I try to know them only by what we all can see — outside the studio is their affair. But there is very little privacy on a tour bus. I ride up front and try to maintain a forcefield of care. Who these dancers are is none of my business; how they are is. I meet with them individually while we travel to learn how they are doing physically beyond what I see. I am particularly concerned with the pacing of their shows. Having given this much thought I want to be kept abreast of how their stamina is being maintained, how the wear and tear of travel is affecting their morale, if there is any way to improve our regimen.

It’s our fourth week on the road, a Thursday. Having bused from Davis back to Sacramento, we catch an 11 a.m. flight to LAX, where we get on a bus for the two-hour ride to Santa Barbara. Our driver opts for the scenic route, and we are taking Highway 1 north along the coast. I am particularly cranky because getting to Davis from Los Angeles earlier in the week had been arduous, and I am still working to recover three days later. I had stayed behind in Los Angeles to do a talk show, and afterward the driver got lost on the freeway in a driving Southern California rain (believe it), the flight was two hours late and I did not eat all day. I arrived at the Davis hotel around midnight; Brady had dry chicken waiting. Next day breakfast at Hyatt was trans fat piled on trans fat; gym: scary, dirty, small, air recycled. Windows in room did not open. Light popped on when you used the bathroom — no way to silence it. Loud glare. I did not cry. I am the leader of the group.

Friday is our show in Santa Barbara. After practically every performance I do what is known as a Q&A. A guaranteed question is, “How do you pick your dancers?” And the guaranteed answer is, “They must be gorgeous, amazingly well trained, really smart, willing to forget everything they ever knew, great sense of humor,” and I mean it. Worth every bit of road distress. In our group we have mended ankles, hips and knees from injuries that have taken many many months of surgeries and setbacks to get past. This business is grueling and damaging, and every professional dancer knows it and is due boundless respect. There is psychic damage as well. Many have left their families and countries to dance. My empathy is deep. The details are gossip but the empathy is love.

Saturday we do “The One Hundreds.” An early varitey of communuity outreach, “The One Hundreds” is an event that is always given free to the public and that allows 100 people to participate in our show. One hundred phrases, each with a beginning, middle and end, will be seen three times. First, two dancers show them sequentially with a four-second pause separating them and requiring about 18 minutes. Then five of our dancers do 20 phrases simultaneously, accomplishing all 100 in one-fifth the time. Finally our 100 volunteers, who have been taught earlier in the day, each do a different phrase, and you see the entire set in 11 seconds. These 100 can be trained performers but mostly are folks of all descriptions who want to spend a bit of time dancing with us (the youngest person to date on this tour was 5, the oldest 86). For company members, “The One Hundreds” is an opportunity to connect personally to their audiences and also to hone their own techniques and focus. Once dancers remember and present 100 11-second entities in public without music, their performance chops will be seriously expanded. This is a promise, and for a Tharp dancer, “The One Hundreds” is both an opportunity and a rite of passage.

For me, it is a pledge to the future. In Santa Barbara, we presented “The One Hundreds” in Alameda Park. I centered the performing space around two large pines. Picking up a few needles, I clearly recalled the pine forest in which I had originally made the 100 phrases in 1969. Artists like to believe their work can survive their lifetimes: If a tree can make it, why not a dance? Viewed as an experience, dance is ephemeral, but as a tangible entity, it can become a commodity. Each of the 100 phrases has a number, a name, a clear description, a history, pictures and videos documenting its existence. Some have been auctioned at galas. Passed from generation to generation of performers, experienced by thousands of participants, they have made it this far. Seeing them given away free of charge one more time is yet another reason to go out on the road.

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