Twyla Tharp is the most celebrated American choreographer working today. Fifty years after she created her first dance, her company is touring the country with a program of all new work.

Tharp's dances are performed by companies all over the world, including American Ballet Theater, Paris Opera Ballet, and The Martha Graham Dance Company. And unlike choreographers with similar resumes, she is an unabashed fan of pop music and has set her work to hits by everyone from The Beach Boys to David Byrne. In 2002, she won a Tony Award for Movin' Out, a Broadway musical danced to the songs of Billy Joel. For Come Fly Away(2010), couples danced in and out of love to the music of Frank Sinatra (who would have turned 100 this year). The production was billed as a Broadway musical, but it didn't have a "book" or conventional dialogue --- the dancers' movements provided the narrative.

Since she was a child, Tharp has been fascinated by communicating without words. She started working at her parents' drive-in movie theater at age eight and "saw all the films, often without sound," she tells Kurt Andersen."So I learned to read action."

Kurt Andersen: There's a great sequence [in Come Fly Away] where a female dancer is tossed all over the stage by these male dancers. It's this virtuoso-but-effortless-seeming Twyla Tharp moment. Do you have that in your head as you hear that song?

Twyla Tharp: Partially that's a pun, which I love to do. "Fly Me to the Moon"? OK, let's fly this girl. So we toss her and turn her and we lift her and we swoop her and we swing her.

One of my all-time favorite scenes in film is in Hair(1979), which you worked on, where these horses in Central Park dance. How do you do that?

First you have the idea. I didn't know much about structuring a scene, but I knew that if you were in the park and you wanted to elevate naturalism to the musical realm and kick it into song and dance, the best thing to do, particularly if you're a bunch of hippies, is have the horses start to dance. So we got some dancing horses. Lipizzaners --- they're a special breed and they're trained to perform certain rhythmic maneuvers. Of course, I did not teach them our steps. I taught the dancers the horses' steps.

Do you think about how and where your work will be performed 50, 100 years from now?

Definitely. I'm very involved with archiving and with education. I often say that dance is the only art form without an artifact. It has no score; it has no text; it has no painting. It's also the oldest of art forms because you cannot do anything until you can move --- you can't write a song; you can't paint a painting. Dance has a long history, but it's not been recorded. Video has made this possible. But video is deceptive, because that's only one performance. I have a very extensive video archive. I started in 1969 and there are thousands of tapes.

(Originally aired May 21, 2010)

Find out about Twyla Tharp's 50th anniversary tour here.

Video: "That's Life," from Come Fly Away

Video: "Luck Be a Lady," fromCome Fly Away

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