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Why Twyla Tharp wants us to 'shut up' and do what we love


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight: A groundbreaking career in dance has led to an innovative approach to health and aging and a new book released today.

Jeffrey Brown went to the American Ballet Theatre recently to stay in step with Twyla Tharp.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Twyla Tharp: Sternum up. Breathe deep. Shoulders back. Now we stride.

Jeffrey Brown: A lesson from Twyla Tharp in allowing our bodies to take up space, even as we grow older, what she refers to as amplitude.

Twyla Tharp: Amplitude, moving out, constantly feeling that you can move out.

As age becomes reality, I think we start to retreat, we retract, we become protective, we become secluded, and we begin to ossify.

Jeffrey Brown: But the body becoming smaller. In a way, it is becoming smaller.

Twyla Tharp: Well, that's its problem. Let's just get on with it, shall we?

Jeffrey Brown: Tharp is one of the great choreographers of our age, and, at 78, she's got a new dance -- we met at a rehearsal at the American Ballet Theatre -- and a new book, "Keep It Moving: Lessons For the Rest of Your Life."

Twyla Tharp: I wrote this to help others believe that constantly you can be evolving, that you don't accept the rumor that, as the body ages, it becomes less. It becomes different, hopefully more.

Jeffrey Brown: So do you think of this as a self-help book?

Twyla Tharp: I look at it as a self-survival book.

Jeffrey Brown: As a girl, Tharp took dance and music lessons of all kinds. In the 1960s, she was dancing and choreographing as part of an important experimental modern dance scene.

And by the '70s, she was creating groundbreaking works like "Deuce Coupe" for the Joffrey Ballet. Set to music by the Beach Boys, it brought together elements of both ballet and modern dance.

She made "Push Comes to Shove" for Mikhail Baryshnikov, part of an acclaimed partnership that included the award-winning PBS special "Baryshnikov By Tharp" in 1984, dance after dance combining rigor and boundless energy. She also choreographed films, including "Hair" and "Amadeus," and the Broadway hit "Movin' Out" to the music of Billy Joel.

Tharp has been recipient of pretty much every prestigious artistic award, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 2008.

In her new book, she provides a series of exercises, and says age is not the enemy; stagnation is the enemy.

Twyla Tharp: We all have that laid on us by our culture. Being squirmy is not really -- you can't do this at dinner parties, but this is how you keep your system, your metabolic system rolling by going -- you don't do it like this.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. But you can't -- I'm going to -- you can't do this even in the way we're talking about. But you want me to? You want us to?

Twyla Tharp: Yes, because, if you keep doing this, chances are your body is going to be more productive in the moment, and you will have something left in the evening, particularly as you become older, and you buy into this reality that older folks can do less.

OK, prove it.

Jeffrey Brown: Her own physical regime is legendary. We watched an early morning workout at her home studio, breathing and stretching, cycling, and various kinds of strength and resistance exercises.

Twyla Tharp: I could bench my body weight for three, and I dead-lifted 227 pounds to the waist...

Jeffrey Brown: Wow.

Twyla Tharp: ... which was twice my body weight, OK?

So -- but I developed core strength that the classical dancer doesn't have. Now, in making a piece of this sort for a classical dancer, I can bring that kind of physical intelligence to them and say, try it this way.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, her new dance, notated over three months in intricate detail, directly addresses aging.

Titled "A Gathering of Ghosts," it's made for dancer Herman Cornejo, now 38, who's being honored this season for 20 years at the ABT.

Beyond talent, Tharp says the quality she most looks for in a dancer is optimism.

Twyla Tharp: Have a sense that you can do it, and if you don't, you will fix it, you will make it work, and you're going to laugh this time. No, you haven't failed. You turn it into comedy.

Jeffrey Brown: You have had, of course, great success. But you have also experienced failure, which...

Twyla Tharp: Really?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. I'm...

Twyla Tharp: Are you kidding?


Jeffrey Brown: I'm sorry to tell you.

But you advise us in this book to accept those failures, right, to take risks.

Twyla Tharp: They're not failures.

Jeffrey Brown: What are they?

Twyla Tharp: They're adventures of a different kind. You may not have gotten what you set out to get, but there is something to be learned from everything.

Jeffrey Brown: There was a profile in The Times that says -- I'm quoting -- "Ms. Tharp remains among the very few female choreographers..."

Twyla Tharp: Oh, please. Give me a break.

Jeffrey Brown: "... to have had a lasting influence on ballet."

Twyla Tharp: And why don't they say, one of the few short choreographers to have an influence on the ballet?

The female nomenclature is highly abusive. It's ghettoizing. And it's irrelevant to what I have done.

Jeffrey Brown: You don't want to hear it at all?

Twyla Tharp: I'm not interested.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Twyla Tharp: I'm a worker. I'm an artist. I make dances, end of story.

Judge me with the best. Don't judge me with the best women.

Jeffrey Brown: You wrote in the book that you're always asked, how do you keep working? And the subtext, you know, as you say, is, at your age.

What's the answer? How do you keep working?

Twyla Tharp: Day by day, daily. Do it every day. It's what you do.

I look at the past to see there what works and let go of what doesn't work, and build on what does work.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, the final piece of advice that you give all of us in this book is, shut up and dance.

Twyla Tharp: That's right, shut up and do what you love. And be grateful and keep doing it. And stop second-guessing it.

I'm getting old. I can't do what I love. Bull (EXPLETIVE DELETED), in a word.


Twyla Tharp: It's going to change. That's all. It's not going to be the same. It's going to be different.

Jeffrey Brown: The dance is "A Gathering of Ghosts." The book is "Keep It Moving."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the American Ballet Theatre in New York.

Judy Woodruff: And we all want a little piece of that.

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