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Legendary Choreographer Twyla Tharp Gets Documentary Portrait in ‘Twyla Moves’

The American Masters series explores the iconic choreographer's storied career, including her three films with Miloš Forman.

Twyla Tharp

“Twyla Moves”


Arguably the most important choreographer living today, Twyla Tharp continues to push herself to new creative heights even in the midst of the pandemic. The unstoppable force of modern movement will get a feature film treatment in “Twyla Moves,” which PBS is releasing in March as part of its American Masters series.

The documentary will feature interviews alongside select footage of Tharp’s more than 160 choreographed works, “including 129 dances, 12 television specials, six major Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines.” A pioneer of both modern dance and ballet, Tharp is famously prolific, hard-working, and constantly evolving. “Twyla Moves” promises a rarified glimpse into the living legend’s nimble mind and rigorous creative process.

“Talking about one’s personal history is — as everyone who’s ever interviewed me knows — not my forte, and not my chosen mode of expression,” Tharp said during a virtual panel session from her empty sun-drenched studio. “However, for this chosen occasion it was something that augmented the experience and because of the format, being able to Zoom… it became interesting.”

Never one to suffer fools, Tharp patiently took questions in PBS’ Friday presentation as part of the ongoing TCA Winter Press Tour.

“She has an incredibly well-organized archive, and there are hundreds of dances organized, and we knew we wanted to have this present day component,” said director Steven Cantor, explaining that the film is divided into roughly 40 minutes of present and past. “We had to consolidate this 55-year career — hundreds of dances — into 40 minutes, and we had to make some incredibly difficult choices.”

The documentary also features interviews with Tharp’s family, friends, and closest collaborators: the dancers, choreographers, directors, and musicians she’s worked with and influenced throughout her life, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Billy Joel, David Byrne, Bob Dylan, Misty Copeland, and more. Cinephiles may know Tharp’s work from her cinematic collaboration with the great Miloš Forman, which included choreographing dance scenes in “Hair,” “Amadeus,” and “Ragtime.”

“Miloš had a deep musical background,” Tharp said. “He was a baritone. And he also was very sensitive linguistically, and he’d been hearing the movie ‘Hair’ in his head for about 25 years. He’d seen how you could transfer everyday movement into a fantasy world without losing believability.”

Tharp collaborated with popular musicians like Billy Joel and Bob Dylan on Broadway hits “Movin’ Out” and “The Times They Are a-Changin,'” conceding that popular music can help dance reach a wider audience. Cantor is hoping “Twyla Moves” will help bring a broader appreciation of dance into the mainstream.

“Dance is an under-appreciated art form. I think there’s been an ongoing struggle to figure out how dance can reach more audiences,” he said.

“American Masters: Twyla Moves” will premiere March 26 on PBS.

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