Push Comes to Shove

Push Comes to Shove - Twyla Tharp [These notes were made in 1993:]. I read this very recently published autobiography on the weekend before going to see Tharp and Baryshnikov perform in their touring show Cutting Up. I was glad I did, for it gave me a stronger sense of the personality behind the eclectic creativity I saw on stage that night, and also of the history and nature of the partnership of Tharp and Baryshnikov, surely (if one looks at their beginnings) one of history's more unlikely creative pairings. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, both personal and performance, as well as some studio portraits by greats like Avedon. I am reminded however, as I look at them, how little the apparent candour of the snapshot actually reveals about Tharp's particular brand of dance, which is all in the movement and not at all in the pose. (It is part of Baryshnikov's particular genius that he manages to 'stop-action' Tharp's choreography as he dances, but even photographs of Baryshnikov dancing Tharp suggest only undisciplined movement without line of any sort. The reality only emerges fully in live action or videotape). Is it being perhaps a little precious to suggest that this autobiography shares some of the same characteristics - that its apparent candour, and there is plenty of it, does not in fact reveal the true nature of the autobiographicand, because it is a futile attempt to stop in midstream something which reveals itself only in motion? In any case, one is grateful for the details and the candour, however little they throw light on questions one has wanted to ask. I was particularly interested to see, for instance, that Tharp's family ran a drive-in cinema, that they were, at best, an unconventional and unstable family (her twin siblings developed a twin language), and that she herself started her career as an avant-garde "purist", making mathematical patterns not intended to be comprehensible to the much-
despised audience. Though she takes a stab at it, even Tharp herself does not seem to be able to explain how she moved to the opposite pole of populist dance. Possessed of far more decency and discretion than Gelsey Kirkland, she nonetheless cannot resist chronicling the first sexual encounter with Baryshnikov: "In my room, I found that the famous muscles I had only seen tensed in performance possessed an extraordinary softness. As we explored each other's bodies, the confidence we had as dancers let us invent transitions that flowed as smoothly as well-drafted duets... " (p. 208). One gets the impression, though she does not say much about it, that the relationship settled fairly early on into one of mutual respect and affection, as Baryshnikov's passions moved on to other objects. In any case, this book is a useful exercise in placing the Baryshnikov collaborations into perspective in a much longer career. Tharp's affection and admiration for the members of her company, particularly the female members, is sincere and so openly expressed as to border on the sensual if not the sexual. I find it interesting that it was only after she'd been in business for some time that she allowed men into her company, and even then they appear to have played somewhat subsidiary parts. This may have been somewhat in reaction against the male-dominated modern dance world in which she served her apprenticeship (Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor). The book itself is very well-presented - in addition to the illustrations, it has a good index and a full chronology of Tharp's work, and it has obviously been well-edited for language and typos.