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Twyla Tharp’s Creative Autobiography

In her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life, renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp shares what makes her tick — from how she begins each day to who she admires most.

  1. What is the first creative moment you remember? Sitting in my mother’s lap at keyboard, listening to notes.
  2. Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it? I got lots of validation and feedback all through my early years, as most kids do when they’re being taught something difficult and they have to improve every day. My piano teacher was always pasting “seals of approval” on my lesson books, everything from gold stars to black stars to decals of rabbits and other farm animals. What I really remember though is the sponge my teacher used to wet the decals and stick them on my lesson books. She kept the sponge in a little jar on the side of the keyboard, and as I played, I always had my eye on the sponge. That sponge was not only the symbol of my reward, it was the tool for administering it. I felt connected to it in a special way. I loved that sponge. And I loved my little blue books that contained all my stars. I still have them. So, yes, someone was always around to see my little acts of creativity.
  3. What is the best idea you’ve ever had? To follow my own course in life and become a dancer, because dancing was what I did best. I wasn’t as good at anything else.
  4. What made it great in your mind? I went with my gut, not my head. Dance is a tough life (and a tougher way to make a living). Choreography is even more brutal because there is no way to carry our history forward. Our creations disappear the moment we finish performing them. It’s tough to preserve a legacy, create a history for yourself and others. But I put all that aside and pursued my gut instinct anyway. I became my own rebellion. Going with your head makes it arbitrary. Going with your gut means you have no choice. It’s inevitable, which is why I have no regrets.
  5. What is the dumbest idea? Thinking I could have it all.
  6. What made it stupid? Its built-in futility, given how I work. To lead a creative life, you have to sacrifice. “Sacrifice” and “Having it all” do not go together. I set out to have a family, have a career, be a dancer, and support myself all at once, and it was overwhelming. I had to learn the hard way that you can’t have it all, you have to make some sacrifices, and there’s no way you’re going to fulfill all the roles you image. We thought, as women in the sixties and seventies, that we could change everything and remake all the rules. Some things changed, and some things pushed back. What makes it stupid is that I set up a way of working that was in direct conflict with my personal ambition. Something had to give.
  7. Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea? I was a senior alone in a dressing room, next to a dance studio. I was in a discussion with myself, and it had been going on for four years, ever since my sophomore year when I left Pomona College to go to Barnard College in New York City (the heart of the dance world). I looked at my body in the dressing room mirror and, in that moment, I saw the potential for a dancer. As I was changing into practice clothes, I felt as if I were putting on a uniform, and I thought, “Yes, I want to join this team.” That’s when and how I made my life choice.
  8. What is your creative ambition? To continually improve, so I never think “My time may be over.”
  9. What are the obstacles to this ambition? The pettiness of human nature. Mine as well as others’.
  10. What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition? I often think of myself as water flowing into a rock. The water eventually finds its way out the other side, but in between it seeks out every hole and channel in the rock. It keeps trickling forward, gathering force until it bursts out on the other side as a raging torrent. That’s my career experience. I don’t have steps or ladders. I don’t improve in steps. I’m the water slapping into the rocks. I gather force and then…explode.
  11. How do you begin your day? I wake at 5:30 A.M., head across town for a workout at the gym (for fourteen years with the same trainer, Sean Kelleher).
  12. What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat? I repeat the wake-up, the workout, the quick shower, the breakfast of three hard-boiled egg whites and a cup of coffee, the hour to make my morning calls and deal with correspondence, the two hours of stretching and working out ideas by myself in the studio, the rehearsals with my dance company, the return home in the late afternoon to handle more business details, the early dinner, and a few quiet hours of reading. That’s my day, every day. A dancer’s life is all about repetition.
  13. Describe your first successful creative act. When I was eight, living in Bernardino, California, I was always forced to practice alone in my room. But I wanted human contact and some commentary on what I was doing. So I would gather the kids in the neighborhood and convince them to come with me into the back canyons where we lived, and there I would design theatrical initiations for the kids. This was my first creative act, my first moment of being a floor general and moving people around. My first choreography.
  14. Describe your second successful creative act. Sixteen years later, my first concert, Tank Dive, 1965.
  15. Compare them. They’re the same. In both I’m organizing people in time and space with a ritualistic intent.
  16. What are your attitudes toward:
    Money? I hate it.
    Power? Challenge if you don’t have it. Don’t abuse if you do.
    Praise? Don’t trust it.
    Rivals? Bless them.
    Work? What I live for.
    Play? Work.
  17. Which artists do you admire most? Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Balanchine, and Rembrandt.
  18. Why are they your role models? They aspired, they approached, they matured. They passed “Go” more than once. Their work ended up light-years beyond where they started.
  19. What do you and your role models have in common? Total commitment. I strive to follow their example. I try to emulate their staying power and constant growth. I am different because I am a woman. There is a big difference between how a male artist gets to live and what they world expect of a woman, artist or not.
  20. Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you? Maurice Sendak. I talk to him every Sunday, and he always provides the best chuckle of the week. He’s the only person with whom I can just blurt, uncensored. And he does the same thing. We’re like two wicked children. It’s a delight. Dick Avendon also inspires me because of his ongoing discipline, his ongoing ambition, his ongoing efforts and self-education, and his ongoing grace. He has real ingenuity. Even when he’s using old solutions, he’s still inventive.
  21. Who is your muse? My dancers.
  22. Define muse. That for whom you long to labor.
  23. When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond? Enthusiastically, I can get there. Let’s go.
  24. When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?
    Stupidity: Run, don’t walk.
    Hostility: Get nicer.
    Intransigence: Push back.
    Laziness: See Stupidity, above.
    Indifference: Move on.
  25. When faced with impending success or threat of failure, how do you respond?
    Success: With relief.
    Failure: More work, fast.
  26. When you work, do you love the process or the result? I love to study the beginnings of things. The first steps are the most interesting ones – when you’re just beginning to find your way into a problem, whether it’s artistic or philosophical, and when you don’t yet know what you’re trying to solve and how you’re going to solve it. To me there’s something very solid about the first time something is achieved. I know when I’m working that the very first time I get something right it’s righter than it will ever be again. I cheated on the answer: I love process – all the time. I love the result – the first time.
  27. At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp? I always, always, feel that at the start. But you get lucky now and again, so I reach anyway. That’s why I study beginnings, so I can deal with those fears.
  28. What is your ideal creative activity? Dancing well.
  29. What is your greatest fear? That I won’t be able to do it.
  30. What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening? Possible and inevitable, in that order.
  31. Which of your answers would you most like to change? Number six. Down deep, I still want to have it all.
  32. What is your idea of mastery? Having the experience to know what you want to do, the vision to see how to do it, the courage to work with what you’re given, and the skill to execute that first impulse – all so you can take bigger chances.
  33. What is your greatest dream? To be paid on the same level as professional athletes and pop starts. This would mean I live in a world where dance is as popular as soccer or rock ‘n’ roll. If the luckiest people in the world are the ones who get paid for doing what they would otherwise do for free, I am already lucky. But I’m an optimist. My greatest dream is to always be luckier.

Twyla Tharp, the author of The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (Copyright © 2003 by W.A.T. Ltd.) and one of America’s greatest choreographers, began her career in 1965 and has created more than 130 dances for her company as well as for the Joffrey Ballet, The New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. She has won two Emmy awards for television’s Baryshnikov by Tharp, and a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Movin’ Out. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1993 and was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997. She lives and works in New York City.



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