June 29, 2010
On some mornings, I get up thinking about Twyla Tharp (left), the American choreographer. And I’m not even a dancer, I’m a writer. I don’t know Twyla, but I do know that she moves like Fred Astaire (leading, not following) and once directed a line of classical ballerinas to sing en pointe. Years of studying the novels, poems, high kicks, howls and — louder still — the silence of generations of women before her inspired moves like that.
Lately, though, Twyla’s been crossing the globe picking up honorary doctorates (19 at last count). I don’t care about her trophies, to be honest. And I’m guessing that beneath all the thank yous, neither does she. The only thing an artist cares about is getting back their routine.
Apart from the artistry and sheer grace, I think a fierce commitment to routine and an unwavering allegiance to ideals are what draw so many writers to dancers. Wendy Wasserstein, the late playwright and Grand Dame of balletophiles, took the greatest pleasure in being a patron of the New York City Ballet. “While they danced, I sat in the audience and stored their fat,” she joked.
So I think about Twyla as I’m tying my running shoes in the early morning and heading out the door for the footpaths of High Park because I know, at that very moment, she’s climbing into the back of a New York taxi cab and telling the driver, “Take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st and First.” She believes the ritual of the cab is what counts the most, not the stretching and weight training she puts her body through once she’s at the gym. It’s all about the triumph of first steps over apathy, pain and fear.
In fact, Twyla has attached a quasi-religious significance to first steps. The repetition of beginnings is the only way to get the creative ball rolling, whether you’re staring at a blank page, an empty studio or a musical instrument waiting to be held. Performance anxiety comes when you think too much and move too little.
Those of us, then, who admire Twyla “the artist,” not Twyla “The Legend,” know that her trophies are really just icing on a life of stunning sameness.