September 15, 2010

Twyla Tharp speaking at the Bucknell Forum.

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Long before the recent phenomenon of flash mobs — the large groups of people who gather and perform seemingly at random in public places — renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp and her dance company organized the first "intervention" in New York's Central Park, imitating passersby with dance-like movements.

And before the intervention, Fred Astaire entertained audiences by seamlessly stepping from dialogue to dance in film and musical theater.

"How Fred Astaire gets from life to art, that's really where I got the idea for an intervention," Tharp told a packed house at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday night. "Our purpose was the joining of life and art."

Embracing life
The ability to transition from the expected to the unexpected and from perceived reality to suspended disbelief is a skill useful not just to dancers but to managers, engineers and anyone who "lives a life and works," Tharp said. Embracing life and work as a creative experience can be the key to anyone's success. In fact, it is integral to the proverbial "thinking outside the box."

Tharp, also a director and writer whose work has been honored with Tony and Emmy awards, a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor, was the inaugural speaker in the new Bucknell Forum national speakers series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box," which will run through fall 2011. She has choreographed more than 135 dances and five Hollywood movies and directed and choreographed four Broadway shows, including "Come Fly Away," in which she sets dance to the music of Frank Sinatra. In 2003, she wrote The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, followed last year by The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together.

"Ms. Tharp is quite simply one of the finest choreographers of our time," Bucknell President John Bravman said in introducing her. "Twyla Tharp brings more to Bucknell tonight than even her remarkable vision and originality as a choreographer. She also brings insight into the subject of the Bucknell Forum series: creativity."

Creativity and collaboration
In her talk, Tharp offered lessons on creativity and collaboration gleaned from a decades-long career working with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She suggested that before setting out to think "out of the box," however, one must "have a box" of basic tools to do the job at hand. She encouraged the audience to think about creativity as doing things in a re-imagined way rather than a completely new way.

"I think in our culture there's a value in originality, and we confuse something that has never been done with something that has never been done in that way," she said. "You need to know yourself. You need to know your strengths. You need to know your weaknesses. On a good day, go for your weaknesses. A good swordsman needs to have a different move in his pocket than the one he is known to be good at, because his opponent knows the moves he is good at."

Tharp invited two students to come on stage during her talk, one with a creative "block" and another with a full backpack. She asked the student with the block, senior psychology major Kelsey Tangel, to sit with her head to her knees as the other student, senior management major Al Yener, dumped his things on the stage. Tharp asked Yener to "make an arrangement" with the items: a laptop computer, a canister of gum, an apple and a power cord. Yener positioned the computer on a diagonal and opened it, illuminating the computer logo on the case. He placed the gum on the keyboard and pushed the plug into the apple. Tharp then asked him to rearrange the items. This time, Yener placed two small packages of paper under the computer and turned the computer to face the audience. He placed a second apple on the keyboard.

"What does this tell us?" Tharp said. "It could be literal, or a bit of a rebellion."

Tharp asked Yener to make a third arrangement. This time, he balanced a book next to the overturned computer.

"I think you have a fine visual imagination," Tharp said. "Will that be useful to you in management?"

Tharp then asked Tangel if she had worked out of her block. Tangel said she was having trouble narrowing her ideas for a choreographed dance. Tharp suggested Tangel sequester herself in a quiet place and "keep moving the pieces around" to find a solution.

Later in her talk, Tharp suggested that collaboration is like a relationship that must be nurtured every day. The purpose of the collaboration also must be clear. While working with Mikhail Baryshnikov on his first performance in the United States, for instance, the two were reaching for the same end.

"We had a common purpose not only to sustain him as a star but to make something that had a different cast to it than anything else that had been done," Tharp recalled.

The Bucknell Forum
The Bucknell Forum speakers series have featured nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints to provide a model for civil discourse. || Previous events archive

The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" series' task force is comprised of faculty members Carmen Gillespie, Beth Capaldi Evans, Paula Davis, Joe Tranquillo, Margot Vigeant and Zhiqun Zhu; students Michael Davis, Class of '13, and Lindsay Machen, Class of '11; and administrators Rob Springall, Kari Conrad and Pete Mackey, chair.

The Bucknell Forum is supported in part by a contribution from Parkhurst Dining Services.

Contact: Division of Communications