Twyla Tharp Recalls 'Amadeus,' Gene Kelly, Baryshnikov as She Marks 50th Anniversary

Courtesy of Ruven Afanador
Twyla Tharp

Ahead of her four-day stand in Beverly Hills, the legendary choreographer talks about shooting behind the iron curtain and working with greats from Donald O'Connor to Gregory Hines.

Fifty years on the leading edge of dance. That’s how long legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp has been moving and inspiring audiences of all stripes — movie fans, theatergoers and modern dance mavens. She made three movies with Milos FormanHair, with its hippie style, Ragtime, set in the early 20th century, and the Mozart biopic, Amadeus. All required drastically different styles, and so she delivered — adapting freely to any form of movement. In some ways that versatility is Tharp’s trademark. You can see for yourself during her 50th Anniversary Tour, at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through Oct. 4.

The 74-year-old veteran and her company are premiering two new works, Preludes and Fugues and Yowzie. The former, set to Bach, is a tribute to mentors like Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and George Balanchine, while the latter is a comedy set to jazz. Tharp says Preludes is the world as it ought to be while Yowzie is the world as it is. “Bach is formal, structural, judicious, respectful, it has laws that are righteous and it delivers through that world,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. Yowzie is comedy, and laughs come from surprises. While they’re very carefully prepared for, they nonetheless imply that things are out of control. That’s the world as it is.”

Formalism clashing with the chaos of nature is at the root of much of what Tharp does, whether it’s mixing Mikhail Baryshnikov with Gregory Hines in White Nights or giving pointers to Donald O’Connor in Ragtime or even his old friend Gene Kelly, who used to come by her studio.

“Gene always envied a classical dancer and he always felt they had an edge on him," Tharp says. "And he very much regretted that he never had classical ballet instruction. And his ballet was bastardized, he knew it.”

But Donald O’Connor wasn’t too concerned with ballet, was he?

I don’t know. I staged one number that had O’Connor in it and what a pro he was. He had just had some kind of double bypass and the man refused to mark. I had 18 girls and him and the girls every now and then would be walking through it. But he would not mark. He wouldn’t not do it 100 percent every rehearsal. He was amazing.

That was your second movie with Milos Forman. After that came Amadeus.

We were in Prague for over a year working on that picture. Because Milos was Czech and has a political background there, it made Mozart’s political life more real. It was quite horrific 'cause the communists let him in because he bought them off. The production paid for a revitalization of the opera house.

It was the opera house Mozart conducted in.

Milos had to sign an agreement that he would go to his hotel every night for the year that he was there and that his driver would be his best friend from the old days. And everybody knew what would happen to his best friend if something untoward politically happened around Milos, because Milos was a sort of local hero and he was dangerous to the authorities.

You staged the ending of Don Giovanni with all the torches in that historical landmark.

On Mozart’s stage. That’s where the opera premiered. And he conducted the first performance. And none of the opera house had been touched since he was there. That was the door he opened when he stepped in to conduct that opera.

Wasn’t it a little reckless to use so many open flames in that environment?

We had fire everywhere. We could have burnt down the opera house. We had live fire in the chandelier. We were lighting people on stage, and these guys were whipping these torches around. It only worked because the crew was so devoted to Milos.

How does that compare with working on a dance movie like White Nights, where the focus is more on movement?

They both wanted to approach the other’s domain. So every now and then Mischa [Baryshnikov] would try a little tap, and Greg would do a pirouette or two. I said, "Guys, let’s find something you both do equally well." They both went for it and that one number has them working in tandem; it’s middle ground between tap and ballet. It’s neither. That’s what’s so impressive about their working together, they had total respect for one another.

What did you take away from that experience?

When you’re working with the greatest, the thing is to do something that allows them to be as great as they are.

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