Twyla Tharp on Tour: The Right to Assemble

The Auditorium Theater.

Twyla Tharp is writing about rehearsing, touring and creating new work, 50 years after her first dance concert.

Credit...Nicholas Coppula

CHICAGO – It’s blustery here as I enter the alley just off South Michigan that will take me backstage to the Auditorium Theater. Built in 1887, it is to my eye one of the grandest houses in the world. Its 4,000 seats are spread out as in a stadium so that every viewer can see the stage and every performer can find every member of the audience. Its acoustics are rumored to be such that a person speaking sotto voce and unamplified onstage can be heard clearly at the very back and top of the house. And I know this is true because shortly after coming into the theater, I climb up to the top of the gallery to watch the load in.

From there, I think back to Feb. 8, 1973, and see myself shimmy onto the stage from the first wing down left, leading the chorus out in “Deuce Coupe” with the Joffrey Ballet. Thus began my ballet-making career and I remember knowing at the time that “Deuce Coupe” was not just a dance, it was a mission. In order to make the dance I wanted to see, I needed two cadres, my modern dancers and Bob Joffrey’s ballet dancers. Bob and I knew my dancers could not pull up to pointe and his dancers could not drop down into the floor. But I also believed each dancer should be trying to do both. Bringing my current group of 12 dancers onto the Auditorium stage 40-odd years later, I am pleased to see that my guys are actually working both sides of the line.

This is a very special group not only because of its technical range, but also because of the number of shared hours we have spent working in common over the last several decades. We have also been out on the road for eight weeks in 15 different theaters, and are tired and cranky and fraying slightly — ticked off over this review or that photo shoot; this hard floor or that small stage; adjustments made, unmade, remade. Still, we all know that the road’s mélange of stages and audiences is the best way to accomplish real control over our material, to learn if our center holds.

With the changing weather, I develop a flu, and then bronchitis. I search out chicken soup and our shows go on. The highlight of this leg of our journey is the early morning show for 2,500 school children in the Auditorium. Their uncensored hoots, hollers, gasps and maybe a snicker or two are hugely rewarding, and the Q. and A. that follows gives any kid in the audience an opportunity to ask questions, including a very small boy in the front row. “Why do you make dances?,” he asks. The house hushes in order to hear my scratchy response, “So we all have something to watch together.”

After five shows in Chicago, we go to Washington and on Friday we are at the Kennedy Center warming up for the evening performance. Some dancers are texting friends, and we learn from our cellphones of the chaos, confusion and death in Paris. About to start the show, I wonder: Should we have a moment of silence acknowledging the carnage still in progress at the Bataclan in Paris?

Ultimately we go on with no mention of this obscene parallel reality abroad. But our pre-curtain announcement, “Turn off cellphones as a courtesy to your fellow audience members,” seems poignant to me as I think about courtesy, as I think about gatherings, and as I realize that performance cannot take place without the right to assemble. The Friday show is a good one, its audience a good one, too. But the event is muted. How could it not be as people dive for their cellphones at intermission for updates. By the end of the show I have very few notes and my focus is jumbled. The world is on fire again.

Giving notes before our final Washington show on Saturday, I search for the right tone. While the numbing sadness of dancing during tragedy has settled a bit, I feel anger and I think of telling the fork lady story: Once during a performance of “The Catherine Wheel” at the Winter Garden a woman dressed only in a sheet got onto the stage and was darting at the dancers’ eyes with a fork. The dancers were trying to keep the show going and the stage manager was doing nothing. I ran from the audience and charged toward her thinking I would back her into the pit, yelling words considered inappropriate for a New York Times audience. I pinned her from behind, and the show went on after a brief pause. The dancers were safe.

A stage, however, is not a country and war has not been declared. Saturday, before the show, I need only to be strong and clear, not aggressive. I can be brief. There is no need for any of the wrap up planned to address petty grievances that have surfaced with our fatigue. Really, all I needed to say before this curtain was, “There will be no distractions tonight.” Tacit was come “hell or high water.” The company drew on its reserves and gave an excellent show.

Now we’re in our 10th week; “Preludes and Fugues” danced to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and “Yowzie” danced to jazz will be performed for audiences at Lincoln Center in New York City. People will gather to see us as they have gathered to see so many dancers before us in this location. It is a herculean effort to get a show up live, time after time after time. It is exhausting, boring. I so prefer film in this regard. Get it, got it. Time frozen.

Yeah, but time does not freeze and it is the courage of going on and on, over and over that will hold the center. The meaning of these words is made clear by the last section of “Preludes and Fugues.” Dancing a repeat of the first Prelude in C major, the entire cast begins in a simple circle facing inward. It is a prayer. May we all live together in harmony. And may the very end be respect given our courage to search, implicit when the single ballerina is lifted high and circled down left in an eternal present, as the curtain comes down.

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