Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
Being among the world’s most renowned dancer-choreographers, Twyla Tharp cuts a striking, still-athletic figure with a silver bob and no-nonsense air. In an interview situation, she’s a bit intimidating — at least at first — with a cut-to-the-chase brusqueness, her arms folded guardedly. But behind the master teacher’s veneer, she’s generously forthcoming. She formed her own dance company — Twyla Tharp Dance — in 1965, which merged with the American Ballet Theater in 1988. She has choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company, among others.
In film, Tharp has worked with Milos Forman on multiple projects, including Hair, Ragtime and Amadeus. She’s been choreographing for Broadway musicals since 1980. In 2002, she worked on the Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out, for which she received a Tony Award in 2003. A touring production of the show starts previews at the Pantages Theater on September 14. We met at Shutters, early in the morning on the beach in Santa Monica.
L.A. WEEKLY: As a choreographer, you’ve worked with all kinds of composers in the past — Beethoven, to name one — but how exactly did Billy Joel come about?
TWYLA THARP: My son said, “So how about Billy Joel?” I said, “I don’t know him, but fine, I’ll get his number.” So I called him up, and that was it.
How did Billy Joel respond?
He said, “Sure,” and I said, “Come here, I got something to show you” — I’d done a videotape with some dancers doing his music. I showed it to him, he liked it very much, and he said, “What do you want to do?” I said I wanted to do a full evening with his music, though I didn’t know what the story was yet. He said, “What do you need from me?” and I said, “I need all your music.” He got it, we shook hands, he left.
Don’t believe it — it’s very unusual that people commit that quickly. Usually it takes years of negotiation with legal things and so on. But Billy Joel owns all his music, so that makes it easier. But he liked the dance, and he liked the idea that we were not going to be including language in his music. So that was that.
Did particular songs jump out at you?
Yes, for two reasons — they were extremely effective musically, and they made me start seeing a thread of a story. Billy sent me all his CDs, and I listened to them in chronological order, all over one weekend. By the end of that time I saw an arc. It brought to mind the opening line of The Iliad: “Sing to me, muse, of the rage of Achilles.” And I said, okay, sing to me, muse — that would be Billy Joel — of the rage of Achilles, which would be the rage of this generation of Long Island men. The first song of the show was initially “Italian Restaurant,” then it got kind of an addendum to it, a prologue, which is “Still Rock ’n’ Roll to Me.” We needed an introduction to the opening, and that’s what happened.
Did Billy Joel have much involvement? Did he just hand over the music and say, “Go for it?”
He reserved the right to approve or disapprove things. He came to several studio rehearsals. One of his lead-guitar men, Tommy Burns, became a musical director for the show, so Tommy was always in touch with Billy about things.
Tell me about the story of the piece, which is all told in dance. Critics have described it as a ballet . . .
[Throws up hands] Whatever! I don’t care what they call it. Well, the first impulse was Brenda and Eddie from the Italian restaurant. In the song, they split up. I said to Billy, “Look, did Brenda and Eddie ever talk to each other 20 years later?” He said he didn’t know, and I said, “Let’s see if we can find that much out.” I didn’t know who Brenda and Eddie were, but I knew they were there. I listened to the song and found a character, Paul James, out of the song “Paul James.” I found Judy out of another, not-very-well-known song. Anthony is from the song “Movin’ Out.” So those became the lead characters, and I began to see relationships forming — Brenda and Eddie are splitting, Eddie and Tony are best friends, always have been. And guess what, Brenda and Tony are going to get together. James and Judy have a kind of idyllic relationship, which, if you want to use the song “Just the Way You Are,” you need to have. That song is played at more weddings and receptions than any other. The relationship between Judy and James represented that covenant of fidelity. Then of course James is killed in the Vietnam War, where they all go to fight. Act Two is just about, Okay, these guys came back from war, they’re screwed up, how are they going to get through it, and are they going to get through it? Do they make it out?
And do they?
In our play, yes, they do. But there’s a huge number of men who are still really fucked up from the experience they had over there, the degradation from the lack of support, all the garbage that went down. Those guys basically screwed up the rest of their lives. These guys didn’t want to go, they were sent, and when they came back, they were treated like mercenaries. They were kept outside of the culture, and they were literally spat on. So [this show] is literally like, “Hello, you explain this to me.” That mercenary thing had never happened before in history, though it’s happening in Iraq now with private contractors. But that’s different — we know it’s happening, and although it’s horrible, at least the guys there are not there without support. It was a real wild ride in Vietnam. Not that any battlefield isn’t a wild ride, but in Iraq the guys have uniforms, for Christ’s sake.
Would you say this is a political show?
I didn’t intend it that way. I intended it to just be contrary. I worked on the movie Hair in the ’70s, and that was released a little ahead of its time. The country was not ready to look at the war, or to be of one mind about it. We were still very split. But it seems to me that when I did this piece, the country had healed somewhat, reunified itself, and we could get this issue out from under the rug. That’s why I did it. I was working on a video for the show on a Tuesday morning when 9/11 happened. I saw the towers collapse. They went straight down, as they were meant to do. So I’m going, “Oh my God. Wow. Okay.” Not only was there devastation, I wondered how it would affect my situation. As it turns out, though nobody wants to see this kind of [Vietnam] thing come around again, 9/11 has made this piece an unfortunate arbiter of the times. I’m not a political figure, so I’m not going to get into the Iraq war, because that’s another conversation, but I am a humanitarian. Also, my family is Quaker, and they’re pacifist.
Movin’ Out has been going for two years now, and won some awards. The reviews have been mainly enthusiastic, others not so much. How do you respond to criticism overall?
It’s part of the business. Those who speak negatively about something deserve to be heard.
Are you still learning from the critics?
You want to know the truth? I’ve stopped reading them, whether they’re good, bad or indifferent. I figure that after you’ve been working for 20 years, you mostly heard it all. Plus, the critics you can learn from are no longer writing. They’ve retired, and now you have younger people coming along. Not that they don’t have a point of view or represent a portion of the culture, but in terms of pushing you as an artist, chances are they won’t. A great critic is one who’s seen everything the last 30 years, and they’re putting you in that context — that is an enormous gift to be given. Somebody who started 10 years ago, that’s nothing. What are we talking about here? You didn’t see x, y and z, you don’t know da-da-da. You can’t not factor those things in.
I suppose it only matters if audiences like your work.
Audiences tell you the truth. I started sitting in the audience quite early. I loved dancing in pieces, and Balanchine always watched dancers perform from backstage. After about five years as a choreographer, I always made myself go out front, which can be harrowing. But audiences don’t lie.
Are you still dancing yourself?
We’ll see. I haven’t performed in a long time. Let’s put it this way, I’m in shape to get in shape. That means that I work out an hour and a half, two hours a day. But to be in shape, you’d have to add another three hours to that. That’s five hours, a big part of your day. That’s a problem. But it’s certainly what I prefer to be doing.
MOVIN’ OUT | Music by BILLY JOEL, conceived and choreographed by TWYLA THARP | Pantages Theater,
6233 Hollywood Blvd. | (213) 365-3500 | Through October 17; previews start September 14