Twyla Tharp: dancing offstage and onto the television screen

Twyla Tharp has seen the future of dance - and it's on television. If she has her way, a revolution is just around the corner. She will be its leader. And her banner will be made of videotape.

''I see videotape as the salvation of dancers,'' she told me recently, speaking in bold, punchy words between prodigious bites of post-rehearsal pasta. ''There's no alternative. Dance can't support itself theatrically. All the companies run deficits. Touring is too exhausting. The theaters don't hold enough people, and when they do, you can't see the stage very well.

''So cassettes aren't the wave of the future. They're a necessity and a reality right now. If you don't like it, start learning to live with it.''

As performer, choreographer, and director, Twyla Tharp stands with the most popular and influential figures in today's dance world. Her fame is international, requiring a densely typed page just to list the awards and grants showered on her troupe.

She didn't get there by playing it safe. Since forming her company in the mid-1960s, she has vised dances for groups and soloists, for ballet slippers and running shoes, for music by Bach, Frank Sinatra, Brahms, and the Beach Boys. One piece was danced on a hillside. Another used grafitti for scenery. Her movie work includes ''Ragtime'' and ''Hair.'' Her pieces are in the repertoires of other troupes. In short, she's been around.

Now she would like to settle down a bit. She still has an endless appetite for hard work, and slowing the pace is not on her agenda. But touring, a key part of dance life, is sapping her time and energy. She's determined to do something about it - by bringing dance off the stage and onto the TV screen.

''The business of touring is basically fruitless, as far as I'm concerned,'' Tharp says. ''It's a waste of time, and extremely costly. What interests me is making dances. I'm all in favor of killing tours, and I think cassettes can do it.''

This doesn't mean Tharp's dancers have vanished from the stage quite yet. Just back from some overseas travel, they start a major season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Jan. 24, offering eight dances for three weeks. Then they open Feb. 23 in Chicago; Feb. 27 in Memphis; March 1 in San Antonio; March 4 in Alburquerque, N.M.; and March 9 in Montclaire, N.Y.

Also coming are two new Tharp works for the American Ballet Theatre, which opens at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 24. And the movie version of the Broadway hit ''Amadeus,'' choreographed by Tharp for director Milos Forman. And she's working with the Brooklyn Academy of Music on a dance and video facility to be set up in a renovated building nearby, giving her a new home base.

It's a busy schedule, reflecting Tharp's vigor and popularity. She clearly has a lingering affection for stage work, and you can tell she looks forward to an event like her imminent Brooklyn season. But she would rather finesse most of her current commitments, trading all those tour dates for one well-equipped TV studio.

Tharp hasn't yet made a TV-only dance, never to be performed onstage. But she's working on the idea. Meanwhile, video looms large in her recent work. ''The Catherine Wheel,'' for example, was devised ''more with the camera than the audience in mind,'' and has been presented in a video version on PBS as well as live.

In the newer ''Bad Smells,'' a TV projection unit shares the stage with dancers. ''The camera work is built in,'' says Tharp. ''It gives the continuity. It's excellent for narrative pieces, because that's what the camera is all about: It tells a story.''

Not everyone shares Tharp's enthusiasm for video as a performance vehicle. Some object to the fuzziness and small size of the image, which makes art smaller than life, not larger.

''I'm used to movies,'' counters Tharp, ''so for me TV screens are symbolic of movie screens, which can have a scale bigger than anything in real life. Anyway, it's only a matter of time before TV screens will be as large as the ones in theaters.''

Another objection is that camera work and editing intrude on a performance, forcing events into an arbitrary mold. ''Even in a theater,'' answers Tharp, ''people choose certain things they want to look at. When I direct a TV show, I'm just suggesting how the viewer might view.''

In other words, control - arbitrary or not - is a good thing. ''Art is about control,'' insists Tharp. ''That's why one develops a discipline. That's what form is. Conventional concert artists are trained to control their performances, emotionally and technically. Everything in their lives is about control, in order to attain a performance they feel is authentic, that says what they mean it to say.

''So for a choreographer, it's not a question of 'getting to direct' or suddenly finding yourself with more control. It's part of the same job you've always had, the same responsibility to refine the art.''

If she succeeds in replacing tours with video cassettes, will Tharp still keep up her own company, with all its management demands and complexities?

''I do a lot of work,'' she replies, ''and these days I'm going double time, with always at least two projects. It's quite conceivable that were I willing to abandon my own tradition, I could keep busy doing things for other places, people, companies.

''I think it's clear to us all, however, that something has been established by this group of people, and it has to be maintained. It is, in fact, part of the culture.''

Tharp's video crusade reflects this loyalty to her company and her tradition, which she's bent on exposing as widely as she can. She is an aesthetic democrat, aiming at one broad audience in both her stage and screen work.

''All I have in mind is how people think normally,'' she says. ''But they're not used to doing that in theaters any more. Theaters have become very foreign places, while TV screens are very comfortable places for most of us.''

In the end, she feels, ''It all comes back to communication.'' Her artistic ideas are nurtured by the bustle of everyday life - ''every phone call, every letter, everything you see, everything your kid does, everything!'' Thus her dances should reach out to the widest audience she and her video gear can find.

''I think my work is accessible now, and reaching a fairly large audience. And the audience it could have meaning for is extremely large.

''I want to reach people,' she continues. I've never liked the concept of the elite, the aristocratic, art for the few, art for the wealthy. Who says that's what art is all about? Not me.''

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