Famed choreographer Twyla Tharp, who is also celebrating 50 years in dance, will premiere a piece this summer at SPAC. Michael Hallisey/Spotlight
The petite 74-year-old woman walked across the University at Albany campus, failing to capture the attention of the undergrads huddled around each corner. One young woman, turned and smiled as she continued to class, but still did not appear to recognize the elder’s place at school today, or her status among the dance world’s elite.
She has choreographed more than 160 dances. The crossover ballet, a blend of classical ballet, jazz and modern dance, is her brainchild. She has credits in iconic films such as “Hair,” “Amadeus” and “White Nights.” In her fifty years of dance, she’s been considered the preeminent modern dance choreographer, seamlessly transitioning from the classics to the contemporary. Where some may not recognize her name, others can recall the dancing prowess of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines and more. Each of their legacies are intertwined with one another. Twyla Tharp has not only walked among the giants of modern dance, she directed each of their steps.
Earlier this year, Tharp joined representatives from Catskill Mountain Foundation, Proctors and Saratoga Performing Arts Center to launch Pathways to Dance, an annual eight-county, 10-venue Capital District initiative, in concert with Manhattan’s Joyce Theater, designed to support new dance creation and presentation.
At the University at Albany’s Performing Arts Center Recital Hall, Tharp, CMF Director of Programming Pam Weisberg, Proctors CEO Philip Morris and SPAC President and Executive Director Marcia J. White thanked the NYS Regional Economic Development Council for its $90,000 grant, which is administered by Electric City Arts and Entertainment District.
The group also outlined 2016’s inaugural programming, built around Tharp’s pioneering work and celebrating her 50 years in dance.
Bringing the legendary choreographer to the SPAC stage, with it too celebrating 50 years as the summer home of the fine arts, seems to be the perfect fit. But, some luck has to be credited here, too.
“When we first talked to the Joyce, they said, ‘you know, we have arrangements with Twyla Tharp and her company,’” recalled Morris. “We sort of went…,” he said, evoking something similar to Macaulay Culikin after his Kevin McCallister slapped aftershave onto his baby face. “’Really?! Could that work?’”
The heart of this year’s project was a six-week Catskills residency, where Tharp remounted two repertory works—“Country Dances” from 1976 and “Brahms Paganini” from 1980. She will also rehearse a new octet set to Beethoven’s Opus 133. A showcase of work in progress occurred April 16 at the Orpheum Film and Performing Arts Center, Tannersville. The SPAC premiere takes place in June.
“There is no grander way to present ‘Pathways to Dance’ than with a world premiere performance by Twyla Tharp’s company,” said White, who in February announced she will retire upon season’s end. Her own legacy is defined by bringing eleven years of profitable returns after SPAC suffered years of debt. Pathways will stage two repertory works and one new work on Thursday, June 30, as part of SPAC’s 50th anniversary season. “Under Ms. Tharp’s peerless artistic leadership, this remarkable upstate/downstate collaboration will enrich the Capital Region’s dance offerings in an unprecedented way.”
Other elements of the initial project, sparked by The Egg in Albany, include: a display of some of Tharp’s choreography at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs; community participation in dance-making through Tharp’s “The One Hundreds,” at the Schenectady YMCA (sponsored by Proctors); and related lectures/demonstrations at venues including Basilica Hudson, Hubbard Hall in Cambridge and Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
“It’s very important to us as performers that we push the envelope,” said Tharp, speaking with an affable charm, sharing her thoughts on the disproportionate incomes between professional athletes and performers. Dancers are the complete athlete, she said. “Move over Stephen Curry.”
“We are — well, that is some of us still are — what I call the immortals. And, you — and, now me, I’ve joined you — are the mortals.”
Bessie Award-winning dancer Shelley Washington, who was in the original cast of “Country Dances,” will return to rehearse it.
Tharp will reintroduce a second piece to audiences in June with “Brahams Paginini.” The choreographer describes the work as “quite brutal,” demanding unusual physical endurance from its principal dancer. The last of the three dances will be a premiere based on the work of Beethoven.
Opus 133 is a fugue, a type of musical composition Tharp has often worked with. In 1969, she choreographed a work she simply called “The Fugue.” With the assistance of an amplified dance floor, the music for the performance was provided by the movements of the dancers themselves. It’s an example of how Tharp believes Beethoven influenced the creative community of the 20th century. It’s a piece that speaks to Tharp today. The composition is one of the composer’s last. Tharp describes it as a patchwork of elements from throughout his career, something to which she now relates.
“I find myself now in a strange position of every time I do something new, there’s also something old back there, that didn’t used to be, and now is.” When asked how her own body of work will influence the future, she said, “Unfortunately, it’s not for me to say.”
A member of the audience from the Catskill Mountain Foundation, apparently blessed with having prior knowledge of the day’s news, spoke of sharing details about the upcoming community event at the Schenectady YMCA with a mother and her young daughter. The child begged to attend.
“Well, first of all, she will have the opportunity,” Tharp began to respond, before turning to CMF’s Director of Programming. “You will make sure that she is in.” Weisberg smiled in return, in apparent recognition of the dance master’s subtle shift in tone; less inquisitive and more command.
“Believe it or not, I will not be here with you all forever. I realize that,” said Tharp. “I do hope to leave some entities that may be of value to future generations of dancers. And, as I go through the repertory I look at a piece and ask, ‘Are you worth it?’ “Country Dances” is one I think may be worth it. We’re going to look and see, whether we believe that now.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.