- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Twyla Tharp has conquered more dance worlds than anyone you can name. A modern dance choreographer with her own troupe and a ballet choreographer, her works have been danced by the major American companies, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet. She has made award-winning work in film, theater and television.

Her creation includes major ballets to the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and serious pop ballets to Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and Frank Sinatra.

She has won Tonys and Emmys for her work in theater and television and choreographed critically acclaimed movies for Milos Forman: “Hair,” “Ragtime” and “Amadeus.”

On Broadway last season her “Movin’ Out,” set to Billy Joel’s music, became a certifiable hit and won her Tony awards for best choreography and best direction. It is still running on Broadway, and a road version of the show goes on tour in January.

All of which makes her eminently qualified to write about creativity. “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,” full of rigorous, uplifting advice by Ms. Tharp, has just been published by Simon & Schuster, and tonight the author comes to Washington to talk about her ideas at the Freer Gallery.

Ms. Tharp is a formidably inspiring role model. She has an ingrained sense of discipline, rising every morning at 5:30 and taking a taxi to a Manhattan gym for two hours of intensive workout.

Her day includes improvising with another dancer for three hours as she digs for new material, and videotaping the entire session. “At day’s end,” she writes, “I go through all three hours of tape, searching for a scrap of interesting movement I’ve never seen before. If I find 30 seconds of movement out of the three hours, I’m happy.”

This ingrained work ethic was instilled in her early on. Her mother who named her Twyla because she thought it would look good on billboards, laid out an ambitious extracurricular agenda that included lessons in tap, toe, acrobatics, rope-twirling, painting, violin, piano, shorthand, German and French.

The structure that was built into her day has carried her through early triumphs and failures as well, which she illuminates in fascinating detail as cautionary tales in her new book.

“I wrote the book,” Ms. Tharp says, “because I began to feel that these lessons could be transferred to other people in other fields. Then I thought, ‘Well who doesn’t it apply to?’”

She is heartened by the reaction to her book. “A designer gave it to her father because he’s a scientist, and she thought his resourcefulness made him an artist,” she says.

“It was really encouraging to me when a psychiatrist bought four of these books to put in his office in various places for patients to pick up before they come into his office so they’ll fix their problems in the waiting room,” she says with some amusement.

The name of the game for Ms. Tharp is discipline.

“Dancers are disciplined, and we learn early on that you don’t get anywhere without a lot of it. Mozart, Beethoven, Proust — of course they are at an extraordinary level of accomplishment, but it certainly is true for absolutely everybody on the street who wants to clear a little space in their brain for a little discovery that day.

“I also hope this book will prove useful to college kids, to high school kids — who have the energy and enthusiasm and optimism — and get them going.”

Although Ms. Tharp has a reputation of being a private person, she is extraordinarily open about her own fears and hang-ups and how she deals with them. The book reflects her keen intelligence, her wide-ranging interests in books, music, history all of which, she points out, are grist for her artistic life.

Early on, she talks about “the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world “The Magic Flute,” or (b) hard work.

Ms. Tharp comes down on the side of hard work, and her book makes a grand introduction to what that entails.

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