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Writing With Twyla Tharp: I Collaborated With A Genius -- And Survived

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The first time I took the elevator to Twyla Tharp's penthouse was a grey, chilly morning in early April. We sat in her minimalist office that overlooked a terrace that overlooked Central Park, but when you're in a room with Twyla Tharp, it's hard to notice anything else.

To say she can be intimidating is to understate.

Her features are sharp, her hair is no-nonsense white, her glasses are oversized and round. Somewhere below her neck is a small, taut body, and a white shirt and loose jeans, but none of that matters. Only her gaze does, and it was focused on this newcomer with curiosity and skepticism.

I thought: I am not worthy.

I'm surely not the first to think that. Tharp revolutionized dance with her insistence that classical ballet and modern movement need not be antagonists, and over a 40-year career, she's explored that breakthrough idea in a dizzying catalogue of greatest hits. She's choreographed movies. She's had a Broadway hit. She was anointed with a MacArthur Fellowship, the one that certifies you as a "genius." And she's written two books. One is an autobiography, Push Comes to Shove. The other, The Creative Habit; Learn It and Use It for Life, is a surprise -- a wise guide for the general reader about harnessing your personal creativity.

It was a book that brought us together. Her new one, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together, would be published by Simon & Schuster in November. She'd written enough for several volumes, and would, in time, surely have been able to carve a book out of it. But she was also embarking on a new show -- "Come Fly With Me," a night of dance built around Frank Sinatra songs -- and her time was tight. If the book was to be published on schedule, someone was needed to help her get to the book's finish line.

I have done this work before, with mixed results. In 1986, I collaborated with Roger Enrico, then the CEO of Pepsi Cola. He worked as hard as I did, all the while running a giant company; all these years later, we still get royalties. Less happy was my experience with Kelsey Grammer. I was hired to write his memoir just six weeks before an inflexible deadline; Grammer gave me little time or guidance, and I succeeded only in turning a total disaster into a mere failure.

If I was skittish about signing on to a new collaboration, I had an additional reason -- Twyla Tharp has a reputation as an artist who finds even perfection inadequate; it was easier to picture her as an autocrat than as a collaborator. But I didn't sense that at our first meeting. She grilled me about Balzac, Tolstoy and Proust; I parried to the best of my ability, painfully aware she'd practically memorized every word they'd written. After a half hour of literary tennis, I suspect we were both pleasantly surprised, she that I had read a book or three, me that that her work ethic seemed fairly reasonable.

One thing I should know, she said: She got up early, worked all day, went to bed early. She expected appointments -- ours included -- to begin a few minutes before the appointed hour: "If you're not early, you're late." I said I understood.

And so we began.

There was one table in her office -- a venerable Shaker piece that was sufficiently rare that I quickly learned to put a coaster under my water glass. This work surface was bracketed by two chairs and industrial shelving stacked with a video editing system, stereo equipment and books. Up a few steps was a large empty room: a dance studio and rehearsal space. When she didn't go to the gym -- at 69, she can still bench more weight than I can -- she danced here. It was one of the supreme perks of our time together that she sometimes showed me how the thing was done.

From time to time, I'd look outside and imagine us finishing the book in July, reading the manuscript and sipping iced tea in air-conditioned comfort as the park shimmied in the summer heat. Some days it seemed that time would never come -- Twyla Tharp could be fierce.

Not that she was ever in a grim mood. It was always, "Good morning, Miss Tharp" and "Hello, my sweet" with us -- formal manners delivered with irony and topspin. The thing was, Twyla Tharp is a one-off. She lives in the now, and she does it with a ferocity I've never encountered. I'd bring up some moment from her childhood that stunned or shocked me; she never had an emotional reaction. Stuff happens. It makes you who you are. Move on. Dazzled by her equanimity, I would.

And so we did plowed through her collaborations with Billy Joel, Jerome Robbins, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, David Byrne, Richard Avedon, Milos Forman, Norma Kamali and Frank Sinatra. This required considerable discipline, because this book, even more than its predecessor, is for general readers -- the stories are about dance, but as she often said, "Work is work." And to drive the point home, we dotted the pages with stories of great collaborators: Steve Martin, the Wright Brothers, Marie and Paul Curie. Even the baseball slugger Kirk Gibson makes an appearance.

Who wrote what? She wrote everything. No one has ever worked harder; anything I sent to her would come back marked, edited, revised, improved. Nothing I did could have made her dramatically better; my contribution was to buff and suggest, propose and try, and, on the rare occasion, shoot the moon. Throughout, she could not have been more supportive and appreciative. As her dancers know, a "very nice" from Twyla Tharp is a bit more meaningful than it is from almost anyone else.

There was only one disappointment. The final month of work on the book involved many meetings at her apartment. Only in the July heat did I learn that I wouldn't be sipping iced tea in the air-conditioned office --- because her office opens on to her dance studio, it isn't air-conditioned. Cold air may be good for writers, but it's bad for dancers.

So, with the terrace door open and the hot air blowing through, I swooned. And I sweated. My eyes smarted; the pages of the manuscript were marked with blotches. I can't remember a more physically demanding work environment. Or a more rewarding one -- I worked with a genius, and survived, and now, magically, there's a book.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]