Twyla Tharp rouses herself out of
bed every morning, goes down to the street, hails a taxi, and goes to the gym. This is the work ethic she needs in order to
create dance productions.
Hailing the taxi is her "trigger"
moment. When she gets into the cab she’s on her way, she’s made the irreversible move– it’s
virtually a "walk through fire" moment.
Tharp on the importance of rituals:
"First steps are hard: it’s no one’s idea
of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake
up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to
this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep."
She finds that creative people have a "trigger"
that propels them toward work. They establish rituals– automatic but decisive patterns of behavior
at the beginning of the creative process– when they are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or
going the wrong way.
It’s a friendly reminder that they have a predictable, repeatable
kick-start. ("I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.")
They follow the routine and get a creative payoff. By making the start
of the sequence automatic they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine. The ritual arms them with confidence and self-reliance.
What works for one person is useless for another. There are no ideal
conditions, except for a working environment that's habit-forming.
As the golfer Ben Hogan said "Every day you don’t
practice you’re one day further from being good."
Tharp advises to put away the wristwatch.
"If you’re engaged in what you’re doing,
time doesn’t matter. There are a lot of distractions out there, and you can live without them-- at least for a little
She talks about ‘creative DNA,’ and believes
that we each have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations that insinuates itself into our work.
Focus length is one facet of this "hard-wiring." We
focus best at some specific spot along the spectrum. We see the world from a great distance, at arm’s length, or in
close-up. We’re attached or detached, inductive or deductive.
She tells stories of creative folk and how they differ:
choreographers with sweeping visions, and those, like Jerome Robbins, who tend to see the world from a middle distance. The
photographer Ansel Adams had an expansive view. The writer Raymond Chandler saw the details– as if he were pressing
his nose to the canvas to see how the artist applied his strokes.
She writes of the importance of knowing your ‘creative
"The better you know yourself, the more you will know
when you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out. Venturing out of your comfort zone may be
dangerous, yet you do it anyway because your ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable.
"Another thing about knowing who you are is that you
know what you should not be doing, which can save you a lot of heartaches and false starts if you catch it early on."
To Tharp, metaphor is the life-blood
of all art, if not art itself. It’s a vocabulary for connecting our experiences and expressing and interpreting
And then there’s getting in the groove:
"When you’re in a groove, you’re not spinning
your wheels; you’re moving forward in a straight and narrow path without pauses or hitches. You’re unwavering,
undeviating, and unparalleled in your purpose.
"A groove is the best place in the
world. It’s where I strive to be, because when you’re in it your have the freedom to explore, where everything
you question leads you to new avenues and new routes, everything you touch miraculously touches something else and transforms
it for the better."
In the last 40 years, Tharp has created more than 130
dance productions. Her latest is the Broadway show of Billy Joel music, "Movin' Out."
Each project begins when she faces a large empty dance
studio– when she doesn’t know what musicians she’ll be using, what dancers she’ll be working with,
what the costumes or lighting will be like--and she goes from there.
It’s ritual, self-knowledge, practiced
memory, and the ‘creative habit’ that gets her in her groove– and when she's there, ‘it