As Barnard’s 2014-15 distinguished guest artist, dance icon Twyla Tharp, BC ’63, will be working firsthand with students to imbue them with a strong work ethic.
“You don’t get up in the morning with your dreams. You get up in the morning with your plan about ‘what am I going to do today?’” she said in a recent interview with Spectator.
Tharp gave Barnard’s dance department permission to perform her piece, “Treefrog in Stonehenge,” during its 2014 Miller Theatre season and has decided to continue her relationship with Barnard for an entire academic year. She has several projects in mind for her stint at her alma mater, all of which will further the understanding and preservation of dance.
During the spring semester, she will stage one of her pieces using Barnard students under nontraditional circumstances. Dancers in Tharp’s class will interpret “The Fugue” based on notations and footage she has compiled, and the course will function as an exercise in how to best communicate her choreography’s original design. Tharp will watch silently so that she can see where participants get stuck while recreating her sequences.
She will also be giving a lecture series for an eclectic audience, and her first talk will be based on her book, “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” Finally, she hopes to meet with Columbia biochemistry and biophysics professor Eric Kandel to discuss possible research on movement, socialization, and physicality.
“Dancing poses fascinating questions for brain scientists, like myself, who are interested in the beholder’s share: how people perceive and respond to works of art,” Kandel wrote in an email to Spectator.
Because of her academic interests, as well as her creative career, Tharp sees dance as useful across disciplines.
“All I’m really saying is that dance is everything,” she said.
Tharp transferred to Barnard after three semesters at Pomona College in California, where she started as a pre-med student. After more than a year of science, she sought a change.
“She came to a liberal arts college, but I think because it offered her the opportunity to dance in New York City,” Linda Sweet, BC ’63, said before Tharp’s lecture and demonstration about “Treefrog in Stonehenge” on Saturday, which Sweet and some of her colleagues from the class of 1963 attended.
When Tharp arrived at Barnard in 1961, New York City was a cultural haven for modern dance. Legends like Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham welcomed amateurs into their studios for master classes, and the movement landscape had transformed to encompass more than classical and neoclassical ballet.
By the time she came to Manhattan, Tharp was prepared to capitalize on her proximity to the creative geniuses of her era.
“As far as I can recall, she was always running off to go to a dance class,” Caroline Birenbaum, BC ’63, said.
Though Tharp, who majored in art history, ventured off campus for technical instruction, she also dedicated time to her studies.
“She was utterly brilliant, and she talked … like four times our speed,” Birenbaum said. “It was really important to catch what she was saying because there was a lot of stuff being said.”
After graduating from Barnard, Tharp went on to become a dance pioneer in her own right, pushing boundaries with her early postmodern emphasis, choreographing the films “Amadeus” and “Hair,” and setting ballets for American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. She has received a Tony Award, two Emmy Awards, and the 2008 Jerome Robbins Prize, among others.
“The notion that I’ve always had is that dance is one thing, but it’s one immensely central and critical thing in everyone’s lives, and … I would look to try to find as many different ways of registering what dance was,” Tharp said.
She has seen four generations of professional dancers, and she has always treated choreography as a learning process. For example, when she set her first work on Mikhail Baryshnikov, she challenged him, despite his celebrity, by demanding that he comprehend her vocabulary of motion.
“Every piece I ever make treats the dancer as a student, and every piece is intended to make them into a better dancer, whoever they are,” Tharp said.
As she returns to Barnard to collaborate with students, she will share her knowledge with them, prepping them for life after college.
“I think young people want to actually be told as close to the truth as you can come,” she said. “It’s not that art is a fun piece of fluff here. It’s a lot of work. And the harder you can work, the more you’re likely to be able to learn from it.”
While the distinguished guest artist at Barnard, Tharp said she’s hoping to channel her favorite teacher from her days as a student.
“The best experience that I had here was with one professor named Julius Held, … and the reason that he was impressive to me is because he was a real scholar—because he really knew what he was doing, and he let us watch,” she said. “My intention here is essentially to allow the students to see what I do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Twyla Tharp at Barnard’s guest artist rather than the school’s distinguished guest artist. Spectator regrets the error.