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Making Television Dance (Twyla Tharp) [1978]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0439
Run Time
0h 54m 58s
Date Produced
"Making Television Dance" is a work of video art created by Twyla Tharp in The Television Laboratory at WNET/13 New York. The work explores the possible relationships between dance and television technology. It premiered on October 4, 1977 on PBS, and went on to win the Chicago International Film Festival Award.

This video appears to represent a recording of the work from television in 1978.
The video seems to begin several minutes into the program's broadcast. Tharp is in the process of explaining to her dancers how she envisions choreography unfolding, as they 'mark' through the movements. The camera seems to be handheld, and is quite close to Tharp and her dancers, circling according to her description of the central action. The video then cuts to a performance of this choreography (apparently from her work Country Dances), pulling out to reveal the videographers filming the performance.

Next, the video cuts to black while Twyla Tharp speaks a voiceover: "Television is about two things: the rectangle and the dollar." It then cuts to footage of a dancers walking with titles overlaid: MAKING TELEVISION; MAKING DANCE; MAKING TELEVISION DANCE, followed by "A Videotape by Twyla Tharp." The dancer is then multilpied visually and reduced down to one; she moves to Tharp's enunciation of numerals, sometimes sequential and sometimes not. Another Tharp voiceover explains the origins of Tharp's fascination with video. The dancer's body is then doubled, and soon tripled as Tharp goes on to state "I wanted to make something that would be at least as much television as it was dance." The announced numbers end with "one, one, one, one, up" as the many copies of the dancer converge at the center and lift their leg; the camera then cuts to a shot of a male dancer and switches back and forth between the actual figure and his image on a television screen. Tharp's voiceover continues to explain the process of creating the work while footage rolls of the "various television technologies" available to her; while footage of her first experiences in the lab continues, the voiceover explains, "...bit by bit, my childhood primitive feeling that somewhere, within its little wires, television had a life all its own disappeared."

To introduce the first major experiment, the Tharp voiceover links the 'square'ness of the television set to traditional American square dance and decided to combine them in an "electronic exercise" by one figure "dancing all eight parts in the barest possible television space." A brief moment of 'creation' footage is then followed by the result: a fuller version of the sequence viewed during the opening titles.

After explaining the editing behind the square dance piece, Tharp narrates her decision to add elements: a studio space near The Bowery in New York. Footage of her working in this studio with a dancer named Shelley is included; the voiceover analyzes Shelley's flirtatious bodily presence and classifies her as "a jumper." Soon, the product of this experiment is shown with titles: "SPEED, Shelley Washington." The voiceover explains that this is the first of four single-aspect études created for four dancers, using "video technology to expland on the problem of each étude." As Shelley dances, a 'ghost image' follows after her in slower motion than the original dancer. When she completes the étude, the camera briefly shows the production team discussing it before cutting to the next one.

Tharp sets the second étude in a studio on Franklin street up 79 steps (which the camera shows her ascending). The video then cuts to the second étude, "REPETITION, Tom Rawe." As several 'ghosts' multiply on top of the live dancers, Tharp's voiceover explains the nature of dance work as rehearsal, which is repetitive, and that the desire is sometimes to seek the human limits of jumping, stretching, etc. The camera soon cuts again to a shot of a subway train and then exit as Tharp explains that the final two studios for the études are "in the big time, uptown." 

When Tharp and the camera arrive at one of these locations, Tharp encounters her next dancer and the two review the choreography in general terms. The video then cuts to inside the studio, where the cameramen make decisions about how to film the dance and then review the footage with Tharp afterwards. Next, it cuts to the dancer asking Tharp questions about the quality of movement before cutting to the final product: "FOCUS, Jennifer Way." Tharp's voiceover explains Way's strengths as a dancer and how the two images of her, one large and one small at any given moment, were created for the clip.

The video then cuts to a shot of Thrap outside, displeased with the state of "Chris's segment;" it cuts to her and Don Mischer discussing the segment plans over lunch. It cuts again to Tharp discussing the segment with the dancer in the studio before shooting, and again to the dancer preparing (Tharp's voiceover describes Uchida as one of the most graceful dancers she knows), and expressing her confusion. Next, it cuts to the viewing and editing room, where the team agrees to try shooting it again. Finally, the video cuts to the finished segment: "RETROGRADE, Christine Uchida." Tharp's voiceover returns to explain the experiment: one Uchida dances a series of steps and then dances their reverse; a second Uchida was recorded dancing a series of steps but is mechanically played backwards. The goal is a comparison of the body's attempt at full reversal against gravity vs. the machine's absolute ability to achieve this.

The video then suddenly cuts to a new segment, "Rehearsal," which begins with Tharp's voiceover explaining how necessarily imperfect a dancer is during rehearsal while the camera shows her warming up; it then cuts to inside of a studio where Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnyiov rehearse her work Once More, Frank. The voiceover comments on the intimacy of television, and its ability to allow a viewer to see the evolution of a dance. It goes on to describe Baryshnikov as one of the most generous dancers Tharp has known; he removes himself completely to act as an instrument for the choreographer's steps. Other topics of the voiceover during the rehearsal footage include Tharp's fear of being lifted and her design of the piece for close-up viewing.

Eventually, the camera cuts from the rehearsal segment to "Event." Tharp is shown arriving in an airport to meet Snuffy Jenkins and Pappy Sherrill, and footage of 'the country' zips by as their country-bluegrass music plays. The video then cuts to a recording studio where they are playing for Tharp and her voiceover is fondly recalling road trips with her family. Next, it cuts to an in-studio rehearsal with the recording of their music. There is then a bit of a debate about recording, dress rehearsals, audiences, etc., and Tharp rehearses a solo. A Western-style costume is then fitted on Tharp, before the video cuts to what appears to be dress rehearsal. There are problems: Tharp lacks ID and was almost barred from her own show, the floor is bubbling. But the rehearsal goes on; after some footage of it, the video cuts to a tired Tharp, who playfully demands her masseur, hairdresser, dresser, chauffeur, etc. After cuts back and forth between the stage and Tharp running to get there quickly, it moves to a recording booth with many screens before returning to the stage, where Country Dances unfolds. A multi-movement reimagining of traditional folk dances, the piece ends but isn't over; the technicians ask Tharp to dance her strenuous solo a second time (now without an audience). The result shown includes "ghostings" of Tharp's positions interspersed among her continuous movement. The video ends back with the audience version: there is a great deal of applause as Tharp exits the stage area and returns back stage, where the dancers all celebrate the completion of the (majority of the) project. The video returns to the technicians' lab, where they go through the footage and work with Tharp on creating the final product. Footage of it follows: the dancers' images overlap, flicker, cut, and jump with the music, much like their bodies do. It ends with a split-screen segment.

The final portion of the video is introduced with the title "BORDERLINE." It cuts to a tilt up Tharp's body while a voice is heard saying "This is WNET, New York." Tharp appears to improvise a set of movements and the voice repeats itself. Eventually the videocamera makes its way around to the technicians, who see only an outline of Tharp's body on their screen. Tharp's voiceover begins once again: "The moment when something comes into being--that's what the Borderline is about." She goes on to explain her conception for it, based on a dance done at sunset. She envisions the image decomposing into only the most basic outline (shown onscreen) and then abstracting, reducing to a single horizon line, and then fading to black, "and we could go back to radio, which is where I think communication happens best anyway." The image on screen follows her instructions, and the program ends. Then credits begin to run; the video ends before they do.
Main Credit
Tharp, Twyla (is director)
Tharp, Twyla (is co-producer)
Mischer, Don (is director)
Gold, Joel (is videomaker)
Additional Credit
Bhargava, Girish (is editor)
Reisenberger, George (is lighting director)
Slesin, Aviva (is editor)
Actors, Performers and Participants
Tharp, Twyla (is performer)
Rawe, Tom (is performer)
Way, Jennifer (is performer)
Washington, Shelley (is performer)
Uchida, Christine (is performer)
Baryshnikov, Mikhail (is participant)
Jenkins, "Snuffy" (is musician)
Sherrill, "Pappy" (is musician)