“Checking on cars sneaking into the drive-in and bagging the corn,” as she describes her childhood assignment, was an unlikely beginning to a distinguished career in contemporary dance that has ranged from running her own company (1965-88) and creating 135 dances for that troupe and many others across the globe to providing dance for four films and directing on Broadway. Her most successful show, “Movin’ Out” (2002), ran for three years in New York, in addition to several national tours. The cascade of her awards has included 19 honorary degrees, a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007.
Popular dance has been a constant thread through Tharp’s choreography from the start, even though she was trained intensively in ballet as well as modern dance. Several years after “Once More Frank,” Tharp began to research historic styles. She fell in love with the pre-World War I ballroom couple Vernon and Irene Castle. Watching them on film, she remembered Sinatra’s affinity to romance and “began to listen to all the Sinatra I could get my hands on,” she says.
The result was “Nine Sinatra Songs,” a suite of duets for her company (1982), in which she also performed, and “Sinatra Suite,” distilled into a work for American Ballet Theatre two years later. But then she moved on to classical scores for works commissioned by ballet companies, other contemporary dance assignments, and the Broadway shows: “Movin’ Out” set to music by Billy Joel, and “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” (2006), based on Bob Dylan’s songs, which closed in less than a month.
Broadway offers a wider audience for Tharp, as it did for her friend, Jerome Robbins, who also moved back and forth between commercial theater and the ballet stage.