Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 27th, 2017

Dancing in a box

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In her book The Creative Habit, the choreographer Twyla Tharp devotes an entire chapter to a cardboard box. Before I get to it, though, I wanted to highlight another anecdote that she shares. When she was developing the idea for what became the musical Movin’ Out, Tharp put together a twenty-minute videotape of dancers performing to the music of Billy Joel—at her own expense—as a proof of concept. Only then did she tell Joel himself what she had in mind. Tharp explains:

The tape was a critical piece of preparation and vital to selling the idea to the two people who could make or break the project. The first person was me: I had to see that Billy’s music could “dance.” The tape was visual evidence of something I felt. The second person, of course, was Billy. That’s why I called him the moment I was sure. I have learned over the years that you should never save for two meetings what you can accomplish in one. The usual routine for selling an idea is that you set up a first meeting to explain it and then a second meeting to show it. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Who knew if I would ever get a second meeting? When busy people are involved, a lot of things can happen to foul up even well intentioned plans, so I decided to go for it all in one shot and invested my time and money into producing and editing the twenty-minute tape.

Much of Tharp’s book alternates between inspiring bromides and useful advice, but this paragraph is the real deal. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of such meetings in The Black Swan: “I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees.” He’s right. When you pitch a project to someone in a position to make it happen, you give it everything you’ve got. Even if you’re Twyla Tharp.

As soon as Tharp and Joel had a handshake deal to make the musical, Tharp began to prepare the box that she uses for all her projects, which she describes as a cardboard carton of the kind that you can pick up in bulk at Office Depot. She writes:

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

In short, it’s a place to put ideas—which I’ve elsewhere identified as an essential creative tool—and Tharp prefers the humble banker’s box for its sheer practicality: “They’re easy to buy, and they’re cheap…They’re one hundred percent functional; they do exactly what I want them to do: hold stuff.” For Movin’ Out, the first thing that went into the box was the twenty-minute videotape, followed by two blue index cards on which Tharp wrote her objectives for the show, which in this case were “Tell a story” and “Make dance pay for the dancers.” (These statements of purpose remain there throughout the process, even if you can’t see them: “They sit there as I write this, covered by months of research, like an anchor keeping me connected to my original impulse.” I’ll return to this point later on.) Other items included notebooks, news clippings, movies like Full Metal Jacket and The Wild One, the green beret once worn by her military adviser, and photographs of location research. Ultimately, that one box grew to twelve. And in the end, it paid off—Movin’ Out broke out of the jukebox musical mold to run for three years on Broadway and win Tony Awards for both Tharp and Joel.

But that isn’t the box that I want to talk about today. Several years after the critical and commercial triumph of Movin’ Out, Tharp tried again, this time with the music of Bob Dylan—and the result, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was such a resounding flop that I don’t even remember it, even though I was living in New York at the time. And there’s no reason to think that Tharp’s process had changed. She began working with Dylan around two years after The Creative Habit was published, and the preparatory phrase, if anything, was even more intense, as Tharp relates: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ was the product of one year of research and preparation and another year and a half of casting, rehearsing, and workshops.” Tharp surely put together a wonderful box, just as she did with Joel, but the result seems to have underwhelmed nearly everyone who saw it. (The critic Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times: “When a genius goes down in flames, everybody feels the burn.”) Like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when everything looks the same on paper, down to the dropped “g” in the title, but lightning fails to strike twice. In her subsequent book The Collaborative Habit, Tharp pins part of the blame on “Dylan’s possessive fan base,” who didn’t like the liberties that she took with the material: “I did not prepare them for the fact that my Dylan might not be theirs.” Another red flag was the fact that Dylan approached Tharp, not the other way around:   

Bob Dylan is charming, smart, funny—and, like Billy Joel, very busy. When he called to suggest that we collaborate on a dance musical, it was clear that I would be filling in most of the dotted lines. And that was a blinking yellow light, for Dylan’s catalog is massive. Before I started looking through it in search of a dramatic thread, I thought to prove to myself—and to reassure us both—that his songs were danceable.

At first, this seems like another reminder that success in art has as much to do with luck as with skill, and perhaps Tharp was simply due for a regression to the mean. But there’s another explanation, and it comes back down to that box. Tharp remembers:

When I first started working with Dylan’s music, I had an idea that really appealed to me—to use only Dylan’s love songs. Those songs aren’t what most of us think of when we list our favorite Dylan music, and Dylan’s greatest hits were very important to the producers. We’re used to hearing him angry and accusing, exhorting us to protest, scorning a friend who has betrayed him. But the fact is, he’s also written a sheaf of gorgeous love songs and it was the sentiment in these that made me want to dance. To have used them and dramatized the relationship they suggest might have produced a show I could feel more intensely. But I had walked away from my original instinct—thus violating another of my cardinal rules—and instead, created an evening rich in pageantry and metaphor, a kind of Fellini circus.

I can picture Tharp writing “Dylan love songs” on a blue index card, putting it in the box—only to have it covered up by clippings, photographs, and sketches of circuses. It was there, but it got buried. (After the show folded, Tharp worked through her grief by dancing in her apartment to Dylan’s music: “That is, to the music I would have used had I not veered off my original path—to the love songs.”) The box evidently has its risks, as well as its rewards. But it can also have a surprising afterlife. Tharp writes of the cardboard cartons for her old projects: “I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.” And just last week, ten years after her first attempt failed, she presented a new show for the current season of Twyla Tharp Dance. It’s called “Dylan Love Songs.” She held onto the box.

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Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

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