Tharp was born in 1941 on a farm in Portland, Indiana, the daughter of Lucille and William Tharp. She was named for Twila Thornburg, the "Pig Princess" of the 89th Annual Muncie Fair in Indiana.
As a young child, Tharp spent a few months each year living with her Quaker grandparents on their farm in Indiana. Her mother insisted she take lessons in dance (ballet, tap, jazz and modern), and piano, drum, viola, violin, shorthand, German and French. In 1950, Tharp's family — younger sister Twanette, twin brothers Stanley and Stanford, and her parents — moved to Rialto, California. Her parents opened a drive-in movie theater, where Tharp worked from the age of eight. The drive-in was on the corner of Acacia and Foothill, the major east–west artery in Rialto and the path of Route 66. She attended Pacific High School in San Bernardino and studied at the Vera Lynn School of Dance. Tharp, a "devoted bookworm," admits that this schedule left little time for a social life. Tharp attended Pomona College in California but later transferred to Barnard College in New York City, where she graduated with a degree in Art History in 1963. It was in New York that she studied with Richard Thomas, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. In 1963 Tharp joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Dances and ballets
In 1965, Tharp choreographed her first dance Tank Dive. In 1966, she formed her own company Twyla Tharp Dance. Her work often utilizes classical music, jazz, and contemporary pop music. From 1971 to 1988, Twyla Tharp Dance toured extensively around the world, performing original works.
In 1973, Tharp choreographed Deuce Coupe to the music of The Beach Boys for the Joffrey Ballet. Deuce Coupe is considered to be the first crossover ballet. Later she choreographed Push Comes to Shove (1976), which featured Mikhail Baryshnikov and is now thought to be the best example of the crossover ballet.
In the summer of 2000, Twyla Tharp Dance regrouped with entirely new dancers. This Tharp dance company also performed around the world. It was with this company that Tharp developed the material that would go on to become Movin' Out, an award winning Broadway musical featuring the songs of Billy Joel and starring many of the dancers that were in the dance company.
In 1980, Tharp's work first appeared on Broadway with Twyla Tharp Dance performing When We Were Very Young, followed in 1981 by The Catherine Wheel, her collaboration with David Byrne at the Winter Garden. "Wheel" was broadcast on PBS, and had its soundtrack released on LP.
Tharp premiered her dance musical Movin' Out, set to the music and lyrics of Billy Joel in Chicago in 2001. The show opened on Broadway in 2002. Movin' Out ran for 1,331 performances on Broadway. A national tour opened in January 2004. Movin' Out received 10 Tony nominations and Tharp was named Best Choreographer.
Tharp opened a new show titled The Times They Are a-Changin', to the music of Bob Dylan in 2005 at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The Times They are A-Changin' set the records or the highest grossing show and highest ticket sales as of the date of closing (March 2006). It was also the first time a show received a second extension before the first preview. After this record setting run in California, the New York show ran for 35 previews and 28 performances.
In 2009, Tharp worked with the songs of Frank Sinatra to mount Come Fly with Me, which ran at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta and was the best selling four-week run as of the date of closing in 2009. Renamed Come Fly Away the show opened on Broadway in 2010 at the Marquis Theatre in New York and ran for 26 previews and 188 performances. Come Fly Away, was retooled and opened under the title Sinatra: Dance with Me at The Wynn Las Vegas in 2011. Come Fly Away National Tour opened in Atlanta, Georgia, in August 2011.
Television credits include choreographing Sue's Leg (1976) for the inaugural episode of the PBS program Dance in America,; co-producing and directing Making Television Dance (1977), which won the Chicago International Film Festival Award; and directing The Catherine Wheel (1983) for BBC Television. Tharp co-directed the award-winning television special "Baryshnikov by Tharp" in 1984.
Tharp has written three books: an early autobiography, Push Comes to Shove (1992; Bantam Books); The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (2003, Simon & Schuster), translated into Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Thai and Japanese; “The Collaborative Habit” (2009, Simon & Schuster), also translated into Thai, Chinese and Korean. As an interesting point, Ms. Tharp indicated that The Creative Habit is about cybernetics, especially in the several Greek-themed creative exercises, such as the Coin Drop; the Coin Drop, as an exercise in extracting ordered meaning from chaos, is derived from the astrological muse, Urania, in that random coins falling onto a flat surface can be used to develop pattern analysis skills. The astrological theme is, in fact, an etymological underpinning of cybernetics' tradition of "guiding a boat" by sighting stellar references in a dynamic and synthetic way according to ancient Greek navigation.