Regrets? She’s had but one

World-famous choreographer working on RWB production sad that close friend, inspiration died too soon to see it come alive


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There does not seem to be much room for regret in Twyla Tharp's life.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2012 (3770 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There does not seem to be much room for regret in Twyla Tharp’s life.

The internationally renowned choreographer, busy preparing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for the Canadian première of The Princess and the Goblin, has shown throughout her lengthy career a relentless confidence that has bent and expanded the very limits of dance.

In a career that has spanned more than four decades, Tharp has married ballet with popular music on Broadway shows such as the musical Movin’ Out, set to the songs of Billy Joel, choreographed films including Hair, written motivational tomes and an autobiography, and is generally famous for doing what she wanted when she wanted. And most often to acclaim.


It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that one great regret hangs over her most recent production — namely, that Tharp’s good friend, iconic children’s author Maurice Sendak, who died in May shortly after the ballet premièred, did not get to see this work come to life.

The New York-based choreographer says that for more than 15 years, she and Sendak spoke for an hour or so on the telephone every Sunday. Many times, those conversations focused on the work of Scottish author George MacDonald, whose 1872 novel, The Princess and the Goblin, serves as the inspiration for Tharp’s new ballet.

Sendak had his own special relationship with MacDonald. In 1977, the Where the Wild Things Are author illustrated an edition of MacDonald’s The Light Princess. And according to Tharp, Sendak’s 1981 book, Outside Over There, was in large part inspired by MacDonald’s work.

The current production of The Princess and the Goblin was jointly commissioned by the Atlanta Ballet Company and the RWB. When the show opened in Atlanta last February, Tharp included in the program a dedication to the influence of both Sendak and Outside Over There.

“He was my very dear friend,” Tharp says. “We talked about the ballet and MacDonald’s work. It is very sad that he died before he could see a video of the finished work.”

That work is a complex tale of an 11-year-old heroine, Princess Irene, who travels to a fantastical underworld to rescue the children of her kingdom who have been kidnapped by goblins. Tharp is known for blending ballet and popular music — from Billy Joel and Bob Dylan to Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. This time, however, her choreography is set to the music of romantic composter Franz Schubert.

Although loyal to the structure of MacDonald’s original story, Tharp has taken some of her own liberties, including most notably the introduction of the “11 stolen children.” It marks the first time that she has worked with child dancers, a prospect that at first was quite daunting.

The Tony winner says that over her career she had generally resisted working with young performers, concerned that they would be a distraction. “You know, they used to say in vaudeville that nobody wanted to follow the kids or the bird acts.”

However, Tharp says, she was committed to creating the opportunity for children to dance in a professional production.

“If they are going to become dancers, they are going to have to be onstage at some point.”

In this production, Tharp says, the children were treated as professionals and responded as such.

“They can do everything. It’s really quite remarkable. And they have no reservations, they’re obviously very fresh and enthusiastic. But also very accomplished.”

The one element that Tharp did not dare change in MacDonald’s original narrative was its heroine. Few of MacDonald’s contemporaries had the courage to create a story with a woman as the central character. Women in most other 19th-century novels tend to be either deeply flawed or relentlessly punished for their frailties. In The Princess and the Goblin, Irene must act alone to save the kidnapped children after her father the king fails to protect them.

“I’d like to think I did nothing to disrupt that key element from the novel,” Tharp says.

The choreographer has not yet chosen her next project, although she admits there are several ideas simmering. At 71, with each successive production, there have been predictions that she’s nearing the end of her creative run. Tharp has no patience for that kind of commentary.

“Don’t ask me about the future,” she interjects in the middle of a question about the future. “Everything I’m doing is in the moment. The future has yet to appear.”

No boundaries

IN a career that has spawned 40 years, Twyla Tharp has shown a willingness to work with any material, and any artist, that appeals to her own sense of creativity. Although she has choreographed many works to classical music, she has made her reputation on expanding the boundaries of dance to work with many other artists. The list of collaborators and inspirations includes:

Jelly Roll Morton (Eight Jelly Rolls, 1971)

The Beach Boys (Deuce Coupe, 1973)

Milos Forman (Hair, 1978; Ragtime, 1980; Amadeus, 1984)

Maurice Sendak

David Byrne (The Catherine Wheel, 1981; The Golden Section, 1983)

Frank Sinatra (Once More Frank, 1976; Nine Sinatra Songs, 1982; Come Fly With Me, 2009)

George Gershwin (Singin’ in the Rain, 1985)

Mikhail Baryshnikov (When Push Comes to Shove, 1976; Cutting Up, 1991)

Billy Joel (Movin’ Out, 2000)

Bob Dylan (The Times They Are-a-Changin’, 2005)

— — —

Want to hear more about Twyla Tharp, the current production of The Princess and the Goblin and the inner workings of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet?

On Sunday at 11 a.m., the Free Press News Café hosts a live and interactive brunch forum with RWB artistic director André Lewis, principal dancer Vanessa Lawson and Broadway dancer John Seyla for a behind-the-scenes look into the company’s production of Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin.

Tickets for the brunch are $25 plus taxes and are available by calling 204-697-7069.



Dance Preview

The Princess and the Goblin

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Centennial Concert Hall

Oct. 17-21

Tickets at 956-2792 or

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Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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