When I was in graduate school working on my MLIS, I skipped a class to attend Push Comes to Shove, a dance work choreographed by Twyla Tharp, specifically for Mikhail Baryshnikov, a classically trained ballet dancer, who at the time had recently defected to the West. This would be a break-out work for him. Tharp's techniques and movements were innovative, fresh and challenging. Some live performances are once-in-a-lifetime events, and this was one of those. As for the skipped class, graduate classes were small and attendance was taken, so before my non-appearance, I got the nod of approval from Dr. Pearl Ward.
Twyla Tharp is mentally sharp and more physically active than any 20-year-old. This book was written when Tharp was 78, and in response to frequently being asked, “How do you keep working?” Implicit in the question but never asked, “…at your age?” From childhood on she has been physically and mentally active, and continues that way, “…expecting each day to build on the one before.” She does not promise, any of us, eternal youth, because that is in our past, but she does believe in, “…change and the vitality it brings.”
She began dancing at a very early age, and never stopped moving, which is what she wants all of us to do. Her advice is based on a regenerative point of view, and not merely about positive thinking. It is about doing and living in the present, not looking back, and not regretting anything. Dancers and athletes are the most fit people we can imagine, but the reality is that their years of peak performance are very short, and can be terminated by a serious injury. "For dancers, aging is ever in front of us as we work. We face it each time we enter the studio, one day older than the day before." Those in top condition, along with the rest of us, share a reality about physical limitations. Tharp will not have any moaning about it. "Time goes only one way: forward. ...Age is not the enemy," but stagnation, complacency, stasis, getting stuck in the past are part of what might bedevil us.
Tharp presents ideas about forming new habits, cautioning that among the most faithful there will be whining/kvetching days, and how to jump past them. Tharp cites one of her own kvetching days that turned into a meltdown and got turned around by a friend, who said, "You've become timid. I don't like to see you being meek." That's all it took, another perspective from someone who knew that Tharp was not that kind of person. There are several examples from the lives of performers, athletes and others who seemingly never had any difficulty in achieving goals, but the background on their experiences shows us a different reality. In 1981, Tharp worked with the legendary Donald O'Connor, who was 56 years-old, and had health issues, but always worked "full-out" in rehearsals as well as performances. He shared some off-screen memories from his dance number, "Make 'Em Laugh," for Singing' in the Rain, which will be an eye-opener for anyone who sees the movie. There are ways to build physical and mental stamina to take us through life for the long haul. She has a technique that can be learned, but must be practiced, called active anticipation.
Reading this book is just like watching one of the works she has choreographed. You can never quite predict what is coming next, but it is all part of the entire work. Twyla Tharp pulls in unexpected ways of living and being, provides examples from performers, athletes, visual artists, writers, books and personal experiences that shake up assumed routine ways of thinking that we all have. She gives us practicality, wisdom, insight, inspiration and lots of reasons to keep moving.
In her very being, Tharp is a dancer and performer, and she is interested in all types of performance. At the end of the book she states, “Even the greatest master of words, William Shakespeare, knew the power of dance, and in his time, at the Globe Theatre, when a performance ended, before the audience left, “…the players unmasked themselves, the music started, and the cast danced. Shakespeare knew when it was time to shut up and dance.”