Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is a Dance Lecturer at the University of Texas at Arlington where she serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble. She is also a member of Muscle Memory Dance Theatre – a modern dance collective. Danielle is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities at UT Dallas, and her first book, The Politics of State Public Arts Funding, is out now.
Listen to Twyla Tharp’s May 14 appearance on Think:
Pointe shoes clacke on a cracked sidewalk while a little girl drags a red wagon full of comic books down the street. The Rockettes say that your fouettés are good, but could you smile? This was the childhood of Twyla Tharp (née Twila, her mother change the “i” to a “y” because it would look better on a marquee). An art history major in college, dance had always been a part of Tharp’s life, but it was not until she was studying in New York that she fell down the rabbit hole of Graham, Horton and Hawkins technique.
During an hourlong Q&A moderated by Charles Santos, Executive Director of TITAS, we were given an insider view of Tharp’s faith and beliefs, aesthetic philosophy and ideas of beauty.
Born in Indiana to Quaker parents, Tharp’s faith has influenced her philosophy about life and dance. A workhorse with a love for humanity, she holds fast to the ideas central to the Quaker faith and Masonic thinking – individual responsibility and a recognition of emblematic components that constitute human culture – and applies them to her work. As a choreographer, she recognizes the strengths and limitations of herself and her dancers and lets the movement develop organically and mutually. It’s all about exploration, and she enters into the rehearsal process with no absolutes.
These beliefs have shaped her choreographic method based on universal body movement. According to Tharp, it’s better to design movement that can be “inhabited by dissimilar bodies.” More and more choreographers today are moving in this direction. For years, we were seeing company after company create these extremely impressive pieces of work that featured one or two dancers performing feats beyond the imagination. Yet, those movements could not be taught to anyone else, and if that dancer was injured the show could not go on. But choreography should just happen. It’s not a contrived mode of thinking, it’s what the body does naturally. And that’s what should be on stage: humans doing what humans do. It’s a philosophy that I believe in and do my best to instill in my dancers. If Twyla Tharp also believes in it, then maybe I’m on the right path.
But along with this idea of universal body movement comes Tharp’s aesthetic philosophy, which is focused on the question of beauty. What is beauty? How much beauty can we afford? Tharp, in her own words, is attempting to get “beauty out of the doghouse.” One way she is doing that is by portraying the masculine side of beauty.
In the dance world, particularly the ballet realm, there is a lack of female choreographers. One reason is that the lion’s share of money and power in ballet lies with men. As a result, much of the concept of beauty has been defined by an ethereal quality illustrated by the female form and constructed by men. This is odd, because what does a man really know of what it is like to be a woman, and what we, as women, consider beautiful, or find beautiful about ourselves? By glorifying women as the be-all-and-end-all of beauty, men have, in turn, short-shifted themselves and the power that is inherent in masculinity. Tharp’s has set out to bring power back to ballet.
And she has been tremendously successful, more successful than any other choreographer. Her success and determination is an inspiration to all choreographers, male or female, and is particularly inspiring to me. My aesthetic quality as a choreographer and artist is centered on the ideas of strength, power and the framing of women in stereotypical male environments. I try to show that women and men are just human, that gender doesn’t matter. The concept of equality of women is not about being a feminist; it’s about humanity. And as Tharp said, that is what art is: it has “power and humanity” and we can’t be afraid to explore it. Fears are powerful, but we need to “flip the switch” and be “true, fast, and honest” with ourselves. We need to push the envelope and see where our ideas take us.
Besides her presence in Dallas and her contribution to the dance world, this was the greatest gift Tharp gave the audience. Be ready to “flip the switch.” Don’t succumb to your fears or give in to distractions. Be “true, fast, and honest” with yourself and recognize the power and beauty around you. This is wonderful advice for any dancer, choreographer, or artist. And for everyone.