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IU Cinema celebrates choreographer Twyla Tharp by screening "Hair"



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"Hair," filmed in 1979, is a musical anti-war drama based on the 1968 Broadway musical "Hair: An American Tribal Love-Rock Musical." Movie Stills Database Buy Photos

Few choreographers in the 20th century have been as culturally relevant as Twyla Tharp. At 7 p.m. Aug. 23, Indiana University Cinema screened "Hair," the Twyla Tharp-choreographed film adaptation of the musical.

The screening was followed by a panel featuring former Tharp dancers, Shawn Stevens and Richard Colten. Colten was one of the dancers in the film. The panel was moderated by IU contemporary dance professor Selene Carter. 

The film adapts the Broadway rock-musical “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” which championed the ideals of the hippie counterculture and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Several of its songs became anthems of the Vietnam peace movement. 

The musical follows a tribe of New York hippies who balance their love lives, their disapproving parents and more. One of their members, Claude, must decide whether to stick to his pacifist principles or comply with the military draft. 

The 1979 reworking of the musical as a film was directed by Czech director Milos Forman and starred a cast of unknowns. 

In the panel afterward the screening, Colton, Stevens and Carter spoke of the film and Tharp’s process. 

Colton discussed the criticism the film received at the time it was released. Many fans of the original musical thought "Hair" didn’t properly convey the idealism and struggle of the peace movement. In fact, the musical’s original writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado disowned the film upon its release. Colton said this struck him as odd given that they visited the set often and seemed to enjoy themselves.  

Colton said the film was made ten years after the movement hit its epoch, so it was difficult for audiences to look back nostalgically on such a recent phenomenon.

Speaking on the making of the film, Colton said the actors influenced the movement in the film,  to make it less stylized and more natural.

Stevens said the dancing helped tell the story, and she said Tharp appears in the film’s dream scene as the character who marries Claude and Sheila.

Colton said that at one point during the making of the film, Tharp and Forman had a difference of opinion that caused Tharp to walk off set. Colton said Tharp told her dancers to come with her. They went to a cafe off-set and remained "on strike" for several hours. Colton said he never found out exactly what had caused the disagreement but he said Tharp wouldn't return to the set until her demands were met, which they soon were. The scene was completed as Tharp envisioned it. 

“I think it’s a wonderful example of an artist believing in what they want and what their vision is,” Colton said. 

While Tharp had a very definite vision, she would also incorporate her dancers into the choreographic process, according to Colton.  

“I think it’s a unique example of a collaboration between dance, film, music and playwriting," Colton said. "Michael Weller really created a screenplay that works in terms of its rhythm, its content, its emotional power. It’s important to see work like that. It shouldn’t be lost. There isn’t that much of it.”

The well-attended screening was part of the Twyla Tharp Dance and Film Collaborations, which began with "White Nights" starring famed ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and tap dancer Gregory Hines. The Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance hosted the screening to promote its new course, “Twyla Tharp Fundamentals in Movement and Creativity.” The course is taught by Stevens, was developed in part by Tharp herself, and is particular to Indiana University. It is open to all students regardless of major and prior dance experience.

Colton will stage Tharp’s work “Deuce Coupe” for the dancers of the Jacobs School of Music Ballet Department and the the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. The two departments will jointly perform the work at the Fall Ballet Sept. 28 and 29 at the Musical Arts Center, and the “2018 Winter Dance Concert: Bodies of Light” Feb. 9-11 in 2019 in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre. 

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