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New PBS documentary illuminates choreographer Twyla Tharp’s expansive, trailblazing career

The new PBS documentary "American Masters: Twyla Moves" looks at the long career of choreographer Twyla Tharp as she approaches her 80th birthday.
The new PBS documentary "American Masters: Twyla Moves" looks at the long career of choreographer Twyla Tharp as she approaches her 80th birthday.

“Dancers know there is only one way, and that is forward,” says choreographer Twyla Tharp in the new 90-minute “American Masters” documentary “Twyla Moves” premiering March 26. She should know. From ballet to Broadway, experimental solo shows in the Village to ice dance and Hollywood blockbusters, she’s done it all. And as she approaches her 80th birthday, Tharp is still creating dances — albeit virtually for now from the studio in her New York City apartment.

The documentary, directed by Steven Cantor and airing as part of Women’s History Month, is an engaging examination of Tharp’s life and work with footage showing the spirited choreographer creating a new ballet during the pandemic via Zoom. The three-minute virtual version of her 2012 piece “The Princess and the Goblin,” featuring Misty Copeland, Herman Cornejo, and Maria Khoreva, offers a glimpse into Tharp’s choreographic and rehearsal process. But more fascinating is the archival footage, especially clips showing Tharp in her own movement. She is still a captivating dancer — restless, explosive, highly articulate, and capable of a liquid, lyrical flow that is often tempered with an edge of playfulness.

“Twyla Moves” traces the trailblazing choreographer back to her Indiana childhood, through the gradual development of a distinctive style and the formation of her own company, motherhood, and the pressure of a high-visibility, multimedia career. Details of Tharp’s private life are limited, and the documentary only skims the surface of her extraordinary body of work — 129 dances, 12 television specials, six major Hollywood movies (including “Hair” and “White Nights”), four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows (including the Billy Joel-fueled smash “Movin’ Out”), and two figure-skating routines. However, clips from five decades of rehearsal footage are riveting, such as one from the mid-’70s of creating a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov just after he defected — including the moment he accidentally drops her on her head. It’s indicative of Tharp’s resilience and grit that she pops off the floor and they keep right on working.

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Q. The title “Twyla Moves” is so apt — you will always be a dancer at heart, creating movement on your own body as part of the choreographic process, yes?

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A. As long as I find that viable, yes. As you age, you realize that your body is no longer the gold standard and you’ve got to back off and learn to project into younger bodies challenges that you can no longer step up to the plate for.

Q. What drives you creatively?

A. Questions, curiosity, asking what can be done, what is possible … and also the desire to implement the cultural awareness of dance and dancers. Dance is not just onstage, it is an experience, a very big part of the human condition. … Exploring what the body means to us culturally — that’s been a pursuit of mine for a very long time.

Q. For all the remarkable range of your repertoire, there is an aesthetic and technical through-line plus tremendous rigor, despite an almost casual, improvisational feel at times.

A. People feel that because there’s a looseness, a studied kind of casual, that it’s once in a lifetime. But it can be repeated hundreds, thousands of times, delivered exactly with the same ‘first time’ look to it. I make it look that way because I can control it. It’s refined and restructured so the spontaneity is embedded.

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Q. How much of your drive do you attribute to your childhood? For me, one of the film’s most powerful images was the handwritten schedule of your daily activities — crack of dawn music and dance practicing, school, violin lessons and ballet classes in the afternoon, all booked to the minute.

A. Unbelievably privileged and grateful to someone [Tharp’s mother] who devoted such quarter of her life to making sure her child had every advantage she could locate. I grew up on a schedule from before I was 2 years old … with me on her lap playing at the keyboard to do pitch training. She determined how every aspect of the gifts I had could be maximized with an incredible, eclectic regimen of lessons, which has made it possible for me to look at movement from many different points of view.

Q. Though the documentary doesn’t invade your private life much, it’s still a very intimate portrait in some ways with the inclusion of your son, Jesse [Huot].

A. I hope you feel from it I love him dearly. I call him the North Star of my life. Without him, many things would not have been accomplished or even tried. Every work I do is dedicated to him.

Q. You’ve just finished working with 17 dancers on a new work for Ballett am Rhein in Germany, even putting yourself in their time zone to do it. What’s next for you?

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A. My archive, which I’ve been putting off for eight years. I have the oldest and largest video library in dance. I started scientifically documenting my movement processes and body capabilities from 1968 until now. Opening up and developing the archive for others to use is the strongest mandate, given the bulk and weight and historic value for others. … Some may call it my legacy. I call it my duty.

AMERICAN MASTERS: TWYLA MOVES

On: GBH 2

March 26, 9 p.m.


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.