For more than four decades, Twyla Tharp has been a phenomenon in American dance, a choreographer who not only broke the rules but refused to repeat her own successes. At the conclusion of Howling Near Heaven, Marcia Siegel writes about the thrill of watching Tharp choreograph in 1991: “Tharp’s movement can be planned or spontaneous, personal, funny, hard as hell, precise enough to look thrown away. She doesn’t so much invent or create it, she prepares for it. Crusty, driven, demanding, and admiring, she hurls challenges at the dancers. Brave, virtuosic, and cheerful, they volley back what she gives them and more. She watches them. They watch her. It’s the most subtle form of competition and cooperation, a process so intuitive, so intimate, that no one can say whose dance it is in the end, and none of the parties to that dance can be removed without endangering its identity. The same is true for all theatrical dance making, all over the world, only most of it isn’t so inspired or obsessed.”
Starting in the rebellious 1960s, Tharp tried her creative wings on minimalism, pedestrianism, and Dada, then abandoned both the avant-garde and the established modern dance. She thrilled a new audience with her witty version of jazz in Eight Jelly Rolls, then merged her dancers with the Joffrey Ballet for the sensational Deuce Coupe, to the music of the Beach Boys. She explored the classical world in Push Comes to Shove, for the American Ballet Theater and the celebrated Russian virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov. For her touring company in the 1970s and 1980s, an unprecedented fusion of modern dancers and ballet dancers, she created a superb repertory that included the theatrical full-length work The Catherine Wheel, the ballroom duets Nine Sinatra Songs, and the company showcase Baker’s Dozen.
Tharp has made movies, television specials, and nearly one hundred riveting dance works. Movin’ Out, the dance show that reflected on the Vietnam era using the music of Billy Joel, ran on Broadway for three years and won Tharp a Tony award for Best Choreography.
Howling Near Heaven is the first in-depth study of Twyla Tharp’s unique, restless creativity, the story of a choreographer who refused to be pigeonholed and the dancers who accompanied her as she sped across the frontiers of dance.