The Low Down on the Upper Room

This article originally appeared in the summer 2010 issue of Entrechat, the magazine of the BRB Friends.

Jesse Huot, Twyla Tharp’s son and Chief Executive of Tharp Productions, talks about all things Tharp!

Can you tell us a little about Twyla and her background?

She came from the Mid-West, from a farming family. Her parents owned a drive-in movie theatre. She came from that old, American work ethic, to a career in dance with a willingness to take some chances.

Much of her early work was done without music and was considered pretty avant-garde. She’d studied music as well as dance and had also had the chance to train or work with Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. In fact, she danced with his company for a couple of years before setting up her own. Since then she’s done films, musicals, nearly 140 dances, written three books, and she is still going strong.

What are the influences on her choreography?

I won’t name names, that is a slippery slope. She is respectful of many choreographers, but for some, she feels tremendous respect and gratitude, for the way in which their work has advanced the art form and provided her with insights. Rather than being influenced though, she might say, ‘Oh, that’s very interesting. You tried it that way, let me try it this way.’ How much anyone lets what they experience in life influence what they do is their choice.

Where do you think her unique style came from?

I think she probably asks ‘Why?’ a lot. ‘Why isn’t this art, as much as that?’ Her style developed over time; there wasn’t one piece that gave her a break. Her early works were confrontational and argumentative, as well as being an evolution of the minimalist trends in art at the time. When she first began, they would do their piece and then walk off stage, without waiting for bows. They didn’t put on music, they just did their thing and left. Their audiences might not have realised it, but those early works were very structured – they were recorded on graphs and charts. Now her work is more conventional, uses music, and encompasses film choreography and broadway shows, but her style is still growing and changing as new challenges present themselves.

Does her musical training influence her choreography?

Very much so. She has perfect pitch and played viola and piano – in fact she was going to be a concert pianist, but obviously didn’t take that route. She very much understands the structure of music, so she can take the architecture of a piece of music, or a musical technique, and apply it to dance, such as in The Fugue [1970]. Its quite rare for a choreographer to be trained like that; it allows her to fully understand how what she does will interact with the musical score.

What is Tharp Productions and what does it represent?

Tharp productions focuses on two primary objectives. The first one is to give Twyla all the resources that she needs to make new work; if she wants to make something, she shouldn’t miss that opportunity for any reason.

The second is the preservation of the existing work and I would consider the licensing part of that preservation. We do a lot of video editing too. For example, forIn the Upper Room [1986], we actually have film of Twyla in the studio, on her own, working on the Glass music, developing each phrase of each section of the ballet. We also have dancers rehearsing, counting it through, describing different movements... It’s very thorough, but we haven’t edited it all together yet.

Could you say a little more about the licensing?

Well, we review all the materials we have for a particular ballet; all the teaching, lighting, costume, musical and press materials and say, ‘Well, if we provide these to a company, can they re-create it?’

Sometimes if a company we haven’t worked with before contacts us, we send a Ballet Master to work with them. They teach a bit of the material, and maybe film it, then we decide whether or not they can do the piece. It’s standard practise to send someone over to teach a piece too. Twyla, like any choreographer, is very particular about her steps. Even if Birmingham Royal Ballet were using the same cast as the last time, at the very least, we would still send someone for a few days to ‘top and tail’.

How is this process part of the preservation?

Disseminating Twyla’s work is very important for the preservation. We don’t actively market her work, but we do have relationships with companies that Twyla respects, and we try to keep her work in the repertory.

The Martha Graham situation really jump-started us. Here was a huge American dance icon who’s work was starting to disappear. So, one important process is establishing accurate performance references, so that we are able to completely understand what Twyla will and won’t approve of, when it comes to allowing new companies to perform her ballets.

Do you also do work in the community or with schools?

Absolutely. We have good relationships with some schools in the city [New York], and some of the rep. goes to colleges and conservatories. Also, for about ten years, we have had a concept in development. Twyla has merged many different dance styles, so we have been working on a fundamental dance programme starting around ages 8-10, a bit like ‘Dance 101,’ specifically for Twyla’s work. We also circulate DVDs of her ballets, but it’s still a work in progress.

Where did In the Upper Room come from?

I’m not sure it came from anywhere. There was a tremendous accumulation of material for In the Upper Room; it was the culmination of many years working very closely with a particular group of dancers, and of all the different dance forms she had used until then. It references and represents so many pieces that pre-date it, so it’s not only become one of her most popular ballets, but it’s also a very important piece in her output.

Was the music commissioned specially?

Yes it was. There was a period when Twyla commissioned a lot of new music. She hears a lot, as she has relationships with music companies who send her stuff to listen to. She already knew Phil’s [Philip Glass’s] music as she’d been working with it in the studio, and she asked him to write In the Upper Room for her.

A lot of Twyla’s work is based on close collaboration, as well as preparation and understanding, and this is no different; she really takes the time to get to know her collaborators and their work. Having heard a lot of Phil’s music, I should imagine she was able to say, ‘I think this section needs a tempo like this, or a structure like that’.

The costume situation was similar. I don’t know Norma Kamali well myself, but I know she and Twyla have a fantastic relationship as friends. Norma has done four or five ballets for Twyla. Its very exciting and they enjoy it a lot.