Twyla Tharp Reflects @ The Museum of Contemporary Art

Twyla Tharp Reflects @ The Museum of Contemporary Art

4 Stars out of 4

She walks to the podium 20 feet from me. Silver sheepdog bangs, shading her now much larger glasses. Eagle eyes looking at us, watching the stage. Slight, in mom jeans, sneakers, and crisp white shirt with a short sleeved cashmere sweater over it. The immense black marley floor stretches out in front of us.

She begins.

Later she will say, Dance is an empty room and the documentation of the time you spend there. 

But for now, the Egyptian Goddess Nut is projected on the screen, the Goddess who forms the border between order and chaos, and that is how this iconic twentieth century artist began in 1963 in a loft on the same block as Barnett Newman, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.  She began with work that asked What Does It Mean To Be An Artist trying to order the chaos of human movement. She began as she says with a right angle. With simple movement statements because she needed to begin. 

The program is entitled Twyla Tharp, Minimalism and Me: An illustrated lecture, commissioned as part of the 50th Anniversary of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.  It is very much Twyla at her fascinating hyperdrive genius mind best, illustrated by the very bodies of dancers she is currently working with,(John Selya, Matthew Dibble, Reed Tankersley, Kara Chan and Kellie Drobnick) the bodies of supernumeraries for this space and moment, and at the end, a group of volunteers from the audience.  She focuses in this presentation on her very earliest work, the seminal works and thoughts behind them that established her as a visionary in the late 60’s. She looks back with a sense of irony. She is an entertaining speaker and her vintage photos and films provide unique insight into these genre changing historic works.

As the copious notes and drawings from her work are projected on the screen, one sees that this is a multilayered intelligence that never rests. This “lecture” is an intimate  and curated peek inside the creative process of one of the singular minds of our time. Simultaneously kinetic, intellectual and visual in her concerns, we actually get to see her in action in the late part of the evening as she sets a bit of choreography at lightning speed on two of her dancers.   Her movement is wickedly difficult and requires precision comic timing.  It’s full of non intuitive weight changes, directional shifts, incredible quickness, and fancy footwork. It moves before it thinks.  She sings the movement the way a tabla teacher speaks the rhythms of a raga. Watching her process and listening to her reflect on her motivations makes for a fascinating evening.

The presentation is full of quoteable quotes: 

Dance and Dancers are Artworks. 

Dance is a commodity.

Men are expensive, so I didn’t use them til I could afford one. 

I always used music but I never played it for the audience.

I have always seen movement as a story.

She is a subtle provocateur, at home in her skin and her place in the pantheon, and she is an artist with an unwavering drive.

There are revelations: she is and always has been a feminist.  And she speaks about being a working mother in a way I have not heard before.  Having a child changed her work, changed her priorities and her trajectory.  She intimates at how hard it is to create the corporate machine, the institution an artist needs to create big dance work in this economy, and she notes that the work that she did owes a debt to the fact that it was possible to live and thrive in a marketplace that allowed artist to scrabble together a living wage off side jobs. That world is gone and she acknowledges its passing: there are not more $50 lofts in Manhattan or even Brooklyn. She’s political if not partisan. 

The only thing she is focused on is the work.

As a document to the empty room of the Edlis Neeson Theater and the time we spent there, this was a never to be forgotten evening with one of the most prolific and fascinating artists of our time, an artist who is still asking questions and creating at 76.

We need to keep watching and listening.

Twyla Tharp, Minimalism and Me: An illustrated lecture is running through Sunday December 10, 2017at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 East Chicago Avenue in Chicago. For tickets and information go to or call 312-397-4010.