A pandemic couldn't stop Twyla Tharp from putting on a show.
Like most tributes in PBS' "American Masters" series, "Twyla Moves" offers the history behind a legendary artist. But this episode, premiering Friday, also intersperses footage from 2020 of the esteemed choreographer working on a three-minute version of her 2012 piece "The Princess and the Goblin," instructing principal dancers like Misty Copeland over Zoom.
"I've actually done it before," Tharp said during a virtual news conference last month. "We did a version of 'In the Upper Room' in Australia, and in order to rehearse it, I did it by videoconferencing. I found it extremely uncomfortable. I am happy to say I found this experience with teleconferencing much more pleasant, because there was no option. It was the only way to work."
Taking a breather isn't in Tharp's DNA.
As the film keeps reminding us, the 79-year-old has worked consistently since she founded her own dance company in 1966, contributing to over 150 stage productions, five feature films and four books. The 80-minute documentary shows her still training with medicine balls and punishing stretching exercises that make your daily workout regimen seem as strenuous as cracking open a bottle of beer.
"It's never relaxing. It's always stressful," she said. "But that's the excitement. In a way, you are betting that something can happen, and the challenge becomes coming as close to realizing that as you possibly can."
What's most remarkable about her catalog is how much is aimed toward audiences that think ballets are the perfect setting for a catnap.
She's used the music of Bob Dylan, David Byrne, Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra to shake up dance's stodgy image, embracing everything from the banjo to graffiti to augment her vision. She's even teamed up with Super Bowl MVP Lynn Swann.
It's a kick to see footage from an early work in which she channels Buster Keaton while sporting a bob haircut straight out of "Cabaret." Even those who don't know Mikhail Baryshnikov from Garry Kasparov will have fun, fun, fun watching how she brought Beach Boys tunes to the Joffrey Ballet.
"I think Twyla would say that there has been a struggle for her to figure out how to get an audience engaged with dance and reach as many people as possible for her career," said "Moves" director Steven Cantor. "The great way to do it is with pop stars and the music that they understand."
In the documentary, Byrne and Joel pay tribute. Both practically shudder as they recall being intimidated by her demanding work ethic.
"I had never had anyone push me like that before," Byrne says, sharing that their work together on 1981's "The Catherine Wheel" helped him prepare for a Talking Heads tour that would lead to the groundbreaking concert film "Stop Making Sense."
Tharp's work with Dylan on her 2006 production of "The Times They Are a-Changin' " barely gets a mention in "Moves," but she spoke fondly of their collaboration during the news conference.
"Both Dylan and Billy Joel are fantastic with language," said Tharp, whose 2002 production of "Movin' Out" earned her a Tony. "They are very, very different from one another. Dylan is a catch — all wonderful kind of fantasist, and Billy is at the other extreme. He's a very tangible, bar kind of guy. He's the Piano Man. They're both very sophisticated musically. Billy plays classical music all the time. His brother is a conductor. Bob knows Haydn and Mozart. They're his friends. He borrows from them frequently. Which is fine. That's good. But in any case, these men are very expansive. They reach out. Their music invites entry for us all."
The same could be said for Tharp's come-one-come-all attitude toward her craft. It's why she's an American Master.
"Whenever I see her name come up on my phone, I don't know what to expect," Misty Copeland says in "Twyla Moves." "But I know it will be exciting."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @nealjustin
When: 9 p.m. Friday. Where: TPT, Ch. 2.