Tharp, a pioneering U.S. choreographer, has created more than 130 dances for her own company, as well as for American Ballet Theater, Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and others. Past works include:
- Amadeus with Milos Forman
- Nightspot with Elvis Costello; and
- Cutting Up with Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Now 71, Tharp believes creativity is not just for artists. It is within the reach of everyone. All it takes is a willingness to make creativity a habit.
In illuminating detail, she shares what she has learned over five decades about planning, organizing and working with others.
Tharp explores her creative history and encourages us to discover our own creative identity through a series of practical exercises. Tharp is frank about her own fears and struggles. She even gives a recipe for getting out of a rut, and in Chapter 10, she offers tips on how to deal with feelings of uncertainty and recover from failure.
Begin with ritual
For Tharp, rituals are must-learn habits, especially preparation rituals. She wakes at 5:30 each morning, dons her gym clothes, steps outside her Manhattan home and hails a taxi. She tells the driver to take her to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where she works out for two hours. This ritual anchors her morning.
"The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual." Rituals are decisive patterns of behaviour: no thinking required. "It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it – makes it repeatable, easy to do."
Ritual can be as simple as lighting a candle or putting on music. The artist gives these examples: Stravinsky playing a Bach fugue each day when he entered his studio; a chef tending herbs in his garden to kick start his day; and the painter playing pounding music to get her into a groove.
Tharp starts every project with a cardboard box, the kind you can get at Staples for transferring files. She throws everything related to the project into the labeled box.
"The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet."
Take, for example, the box for her hit musical Movin’ Out (based on the songs of Billy Joel). Initially, it contained:
- demo tape to sell idea to Billy Joel
- two blue index cards with stated goals for the show
- videos of Billy Joel’s lectures to hear what he thought of his songs
- movies from 1965 to 1984, including U.S. Army training films from the Vietnam era
- green beret that belonged to the military adviser she consulted for the show’s night patrol sequence; and
- earrings and macramé vest that sparked her thinking about costumes.
Eventually, the material for the show filled 12 boxes.
The box strategy can also be used as an evaluation tool. After each project, Tharp asks herself: How did I do? Did I get to my goal? Did I move beyond it? Did it change along the way? Could I have done it more efficiently?
Scratch for ideas
The artist finds it tough to come up with ideas for new works. To cope, she has developed an approach she calls "scratching".
"You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece."
She has two ironclad rules: only scratch among the best – the best composers, the best people and the best resources, and never scratch in the same place twice. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tharp believes the person you will be in five years depends on the people you meet and the books you read.
She scratches for ideas in everyday conversation and in nature. She browses through books and visits museums and exhibitions. She follows in the footsteps of her heroes and mentors – Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Dostoyevsky, Yeats, Cézanne, Kurosawa and Balanchine – hoping to discover ideas that will spark her own.
The Creative Habit is an outstanding resource; it’s an entertaining "how to" guide and a testament to an unwavering commitment to personal vision. It’s bound to bolster your own desire to live creatively.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review appeared in AHB Jan/Feb 2010.