Twyla Tharp's Minimalism and Me

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday December 12, 2017

Twyla Tharp
Twyla Tharp  

Iconoclastic choreographer Twyla Tharp delivered a sermon for the church of movement on Thursday, December 7, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The pixie with a pixie cut has been a dance innovator for over five decades, often collaborating on stage with musicians and music (although her early work was set to silence), on Broadway with David Byrne and "The Catherine Wheel," as well as with Billy Joel's "Movin' Out," Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly Away."

On film, she choreographed 1978's "Hair," 1983's "Amadeus," and 1985's "White Nights," as well as directing "The Catherine Wheel" for BBC TV.

From stage left, the petite, silver-haired 76-year-old out of rural Portland, Indiana, talked for about 90 minutes about how she began to dance and choreograph in the 1960s, then would throw focus to five dancers and some civilians on stage to show snippets of the results, an exaltation of quotidian motion. Watching her watch her dancers in her work was also riveting as she remained thoroughly engaged.

After graduating from Barnard College, Tharp moved to Brooklyn, and first went on stage there as the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, a star-covered woman arching over the earth, a horizontal and a vertical.

"I began my career in right angle," she said, "and at the beginning of the universe."

She then told of merging the wildness of abstract expressionism and the Beat Generation into "a house cleaning called minimalism."

Her first concert, "Tank Dive," was in 1965. Petula Clark's song "Downtown" was played in its entirely as a female dancer stood still in second position relevť, quite minimal yet extremely challenging, "streetwise nonchalance."

Removes was performed in 1966, and the New York Times' Clive Barnes came to review the multi-part "Shameless" at Judson Church, where the performers measured the space with their footsteps then with body rolls near the feet of the viewers. Part three was performed as a box, and part four was inside the box so the audience saw nothing.

They didn't take post-show bows because they didn't know if any audience would remain. All shows were free, often in public spaces, and were followed by the process to "get back to work tomorrow."

Tharp proudly accedes that her work was to "never deliver answers, only ask questions."

She's a feminist, using only six women dancers, "the Broads," for her early work including "Medley," to show "social beings in the world," the "world's first flash mob."

Throughout "Minimalism and Me," Tharp's dense and tidy notebooks and diptychs, and her micro-managed movement plots on tracing paper were projected to demonstrate her meticulous nature. She thought fellow artist Frank Stella successfully summed up her process: "what you see is what you see."

She ended the evening with a Q&A while eight audience volunteers learned phrases from her "The One Hundreds," 100 silent movement sequences, each 11 seconds long, performed simultaneously, what Tharp has called "a process of deterioration and democracy."

The master reminds that dance is a simple process: "You just need an empty space," she said, "to document your time on this earth."

Twyla Tharp - "Minimalism and Me: An Illustrated Lecture" ran December 7-10 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Stage, 220 E. Chicago Ave. For more information, visit or

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at