Essay: On the Bone

by Natalya Anderson

Across the spectrum of their careers, the choreographer Twyla Tharp and the poet Sharon Olds have shared a likeness in the way they have documented the female ageing process. Through dance and lyric, Tharp and Olds have created maps of their bodies at transition points in their lives, exploring such experiences as sex, pregnancy, divorce, illness, and physical deterioration beyond middle age. Where Tharp describes her work as “the only way out” of the mental distress that ageing brings for her, Olds appears to write herself into the process of physical change as a coping device. Both artists describe their work as “useful lessons” on what the body and mind are capable of. In keeping with their particular artforms, they approach their material from different directions. Dance has historically been a discipline that works outward and then within – the methodology of training involving a personal relationship with the mirror, from which established dancers and choreographers can migrate inward with emotional expression once their classical training has been embedded in their physicality. Poetry does a resistance dance of its own, but often begins with deeply personal material around which form has to be scaffolded and structured. But while Tharp may be choreographing outward as Olds is folding herself in, reflecting the nature of their forms, both are maintaining “an alliance with death”, dancing through each year in order to teach themselves and others about what it means to survive.

Twyla Tharp explained in a recent New York Times interview that she consumes no more than 1,200 calories a day, as part of her survival method. “It’s a little crazy,” she acknowledges. “But it helps me keep myself on the bone, which is important, because the less weight I put onto feet, the better off we are.” After the age of sixty-five, she says (she is now eighty years old), “I got nothing for free. I had to work hard for every little thing, and that could be discouraging, to say the least. So how to maximize that? How do we learn from some of these newer moves that the body comes up with just to survive?”

While she was pregnant, Tharp retreated to the attic in her home and recorded herself dancing a series of steps. She repeated this daily throughout the pregnancy to document how her dancing changed as her body changed. “So, how does a body change?” Tharp asks in the PBS documentary Twyla Moves. “This was going to be an opportunity to learn some interesting lessons. There was no other way to do it.” In describing her work, Tharp frequently refers to there being “no other way” than following a particular practice, or that it is “the only way out”. It’s as if, as in the example of her pregnancy project, she is scrutinising the body not so much to escape this physical phase in her life, but rather in order to coexist with its precariousness. Although she makes it clear now that she does not enjoy ageing (“What do you think? What’s to reflect? It sucks”), Tharp simultaneously works to live in harmony with the process. So while she wants out, she continues to seek artistic use from getting older.

Dance historian Maura Keefe views Tharp’s method from this perspective: “This is typical dancemaking by Tharp: at the same time as she is deeply involved in the kinesthetics of the actions, she is also coolly analytical in her observation of the evolving form of each dance from the outside.” Keefe’s observations apply not only to Tharp’s work, but also to the very nature of dance as a discipline. Dancers are taught in front of a wall of mirrors, and their relationship with the mirror is a step up from their first initiation into studio life, which involves a very physical audition. The dancer learns from childhood that outward appearance and alignment are key to how they will match other dancers in a company. The mirror becomes second-in-command to their teacher as a silent disciplinarian – a relationship that is not often spoken about in the dance world. It makes sense therefore, that Tharp, who also filmed her earliest work, might continue to work outward and then access the emotional core of her work from that outside focal point.

Sharon Olds, who will be seventy-nine this year, is also deeply invested in manifesting the body and its experiences in her work. Like Tharp, she wants her art to serve a purpose (“I want a poem to be useful”, she has commented). Where Tharp analyses from the outside, Olds documents her own physicality from within, writing herself into parts of her body, or merging with another’s. In contrast with dance, we might think of poetry as a more internal, cerebral practice, which works from the inside out, rather than the outside in. A poet may resist this process, just as a dancer might struggle with the resistance of her body. As Mary Ruefle writes in her lecture ‘On Secrets’ (2012), “Poems are written in secret. […] The two sides of a secret are repression and expression, just as the two sides of the poem are the told and the untold.”

An early example of Olds working with this push-pull between the emotional and the physical can be seen in her poem ‘First’ (from her 1996 collection The Wellspring), in which she details a first experience of oral sex. This encounter is not depicted from an observational point of view; rather it is presented as a kind of nourishing, healing act for the speaker’s own body:

I was a sophomore
at college, in the baths with a naked man,
a writer, married, a father, widowed,
remarried, separated, unreadable, and when I
said No, I was sorry, I couldn’t,
he had invented this, rising and dripping
in the heavy sodium water, giving me his body to suck. I had not heard
of this, I was moved by his innocence and daring,
I went to him like a baby who’s been crying
for hours for milk.

In a New Yorker interview with the poet, journalist Alexandra Schwartz suggests these early depictions of sex in the poems are ways that Olds testifies and heals after trauma. Olds has spoken at length about her upbringing in an abusive, Calvinist home in which sex was a taboo topic and yet her body was frequently stripped naked to be beaten by her mother. In her analysis of ‘First’, Schwartz proposes that the poem gives the author permission to explore her body:

Sex was the first means of healing. Olds frequently borrows religious tropes to write of her erotic life, letting the body take the place where religion had been […]. Later in “First,” Olds compares the innate body knowledge awakened in her in the sulfur pool to the experience of rubbing her mother’s back, “receiving directions from her want into the nerves of my hands.” This taboo trespassing, the crossing of family with sex, is typical of Olds. The intent is not to provoke, but to testify.

This desire to testify continues in the work of both Tharp and Olds as they age. In her poem ‘35/10’, which first appeared in 1982, Olds compares herself, at the age of thirty-five, to her ten-year-old daughter. Here, again, she writes herself very intimately into the body of the poem, almost imagining herself as her daughter as she grapples with the idea of her own physical change:

As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a small
pale flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, gold and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

Here the speaker is mapping herself onto another person’s body; where previously she wrote herself into a healing sexual process, which she sought to transfer to her mother through touch, here the possession and transference involves her daughter, as if this work might facilitate an acceptance or overcoming of the ageing process. Kate Kellaway has suggested that this tactic might be Olds’s way of forming a kind of friendship with physical decline, in order to surmount the emotional distress ageing brings. Here is where Olds’s poems, like Tharp’s choreography, continue to be “useful” lessons. “There is self-petitioning: she will unthink her thoughts, she will praise, accept and attempt to love,” Kellaway writes in a review of Olds’s 2016 collection Odes. “Not that any of this is comfortable. Imagining herself as ‘hardly human’ is shocking. She writes about age’s alliance to death – just one of the taboos she breaks – with a driven perkiness […] Sharon Olds once told me she wanted her poems to be ‘useful’. These odes, because they illuminate what it is to live inside a body and survive its outrages, are useful – and beautiful too.”

Olds also creates this useful beauty in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Stag’s Leap (2012), in which she documents the events leading up to her divorce and her experience, as she later describes it in Odes, of being “a fresh left / wife” (‘Ode to Whiskers’). Critics of the collection praised Olds for her “lack of anger” in the poems, missing the opportunity to see the deep, inward motion of her writing, particularly when she, once again, seeks to fold herself entirely into a body part as it ages. Consider the opening of her ‘Poem for the Breasts’:

Like other identical twins, they can be
better told apart in adulthood.
One is fast to wrinkle her brow,
her brain, her quick intelligence. The other
dreams inside a constellation,
freckles of Orion. They were born when I was thirteen,
they rose up, half out of my chest,
now they’re forty, wise, generous.
I am inside them—

Irrespective of the poet’s relationship with anger, which is beside the point, Olds demonstrates here the ways in which she uses her ageing body during times of strife to teach herself something about survival. In a conversation about Stag’s Leap with journalist Sabine Durrant, Olds discusses a kind of self-teaching that has become intertwined with her poetry: “During our conversation she refers to various things she had to learn for herself”, writes Durrant:

Loyalty: ‘One picks it up by imitation and if, as in my case, you are never shown it as a child, you can have difficulties learning it.’ Motherhood: ‘I understood so little about it. In expressing, we slowly come to understand a little more.’ Anger: ‘If you grow up thinking anger is a danger to the soul, that it is not an option, it takes a while to know how to get appropriately angry, to respect your own emotions.’

Olds suggests that this kind of deep physical examination might be linked to the process of composition, which, in turn, allows for lessons in healing: “I focus so hard on the line, like a gladiator in the arena with the lions, just trying to be accurate, not being gloomy about your condition, but making something which may prove to be good.”

It is worth noting that while Tharp and Olds work in different disciplines as they examine the female body, Tharp is in some ways a poet, and Olds is very much a dancer. Consider how Tharp, when pushed by a news broadcaster to describe how she choreographed her breakthrough piece ‘Eight Jelly Rolls’ in 1971, describes the dance moves of one microcosm in the dance:

There are some very literal gestures. I mean, for example, the banjo solo that I do starts out with “Hitching a ride down the street. How do you do? I’m knocking off my foot. Oh, yeah, there it goes. Oh, I see it. I see it. I still need a ride. How are you? I’m washing my hands of this whole mess. Oh, I hate you a lot. I’m bowing down here, this cello. I am shooting craps. Shame on you. You’re a bad person. Traffic goes this way. Hello out there. Again, I will polish the mirror, and then bouncing a basketball. And this is my motion of some Jewish something or other. And then we have this black bottom number put in, because it is called The Black Bottom Stomp. And then we go to the knock-kneed sheriff, and the last little dirty movement that we can put in before it comes to fast diagonal.” And that all happens at this tempo [claps hands three times].

One might compare Tharp’s description of her choreography to a Rosemary Tonks poem. Olds, meanwhile, when asked about her craft in an interview for The Moth in 2020, delivers a downright balletic response:

I’ve certainly had a passionate relationship with craft. It’s a little like improv rock and roll. I did ballet as a child and then at 15, Fats Domino started singing ‘Blueberry Hill’ and I was at a junior high and there were kids there who were dancing so expressively, and I asked someone how did they learn that, and he said, ‘You just do what you want.’ So I just started dancing. And that would not have been recognizable in ballet terms or dancing school terms. I was dancing with it and then against it, in counterpoint to it, and I love that. I love that so much.

Olds illustrates this relationship in a very physical manner in a 2011 Poets.org panel discussion available on YouTube, ‘Breaking the Line, Breaking the Narrative’. When asked how she approaches line breaks, she stands up, begins a series of airy, willowy gestures with her back and arms, and offers this reply: “It’s like a pine tree, kind of, or a hemlock. Over here is the mirror of that, which is not in language and is not written, but is like the life, that the spirit, that this matter of language is representing, in a way. The whole thing, also, has a sense to me of a dervish dance.”

Just as Olds transfers between dance, music, and lyric in her writing, Tharp also came to transfer easily between her more traditional classical training and contemporary experimentation in choreography and music. She has long paired classical dance with rock and roll, or modern choreography with classical music. The idea of marrying young and old is something Tharp has played with since she created her 1973 piece ‘Deuce Coup’ for the Joffrey Ballet, with classically trained dancers performing to music by The Beach Boys. She interchanges this process repeatedly during her career, with classical and modern meshing in celebrated choreographic works like ‘Push Comes to Shove’ (1976), ‘In the Upper Room’ (1986), ‘The Brahms Haydn Variations’ (2000), and countless others.

One of Tharp’s most fascinating experiments with meshing old and new is ‘The Catherine Wheel’, created in 1981 when Tharp was forty. Inspired by the legend of St Catherine, a fourth-century martyr who aimed to achieve spiritual perfection by overcoming her human failings, this piece was revolutionary in 1981, as Tharp combined technology with dance, all to the music of Talking Heads’ David Byrne. Catherine is depicted in a non-human electronic form. Her human counterpart, Sara, is doomed to fail in her attempt to achieve the discipline and physical control of the computerised Catherine. Tharp explores the body from the outside, with a computerised woman superimposed onto a real one. One can see the female version of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, arms and legs stretched out in a wheel for perpetual scrutiny.

“When ‘The Catherine Wheel’ began,” Twyla remarks in Twyla Moves, “it started with the idea that technology could offer a new look at a dancer. ‘The Catherine Wheel’ has one of the first motion-capture figures. And it has some sort of video experiments that certainly helped me with the foundation for what we’re trying to do in the Zoom stuff.” The “Zoom stuff” she refers to is one of her latest pieces, choregraphed remotely during the pandemic, with dancers from around the world. Another testament to her desire to see what is possible in an impossible time, both physically as she approached eighty, and geographically with dancers beaming in via the internet, Tharp has created an online adaptation of her work ‘The Princess and the Goblin’, teaching dancers in their thirties choreography from her studio in New York.

“[Y]ou build up your backlog of experiences and lessons so that you get to be a certain age, and then you’re ready to start”, she tells the New Yorker when asked about ageing and whether she’s evolved into a “new” choreographer as an older person:

You’re ready to get going because you might know something […] And I think that it becomes more difficult as one ages, to have that kind of grasp and faith that you actually can find a new beginning. I mean, that’s one of the things that obviously is so moving about Matisse. He was basically completely debilitated when he was able to make those massive breakthroughs with the cutouts. It’s that the physical destruction only tempers the spirit. And, also, the necessity to work – you don’t put together a lifetime of information like this and walk away from it.

There is no walking away for Olds either, and the lifetime of work she has built as a poet provides ballast to her fearless examination of the ageing female body in Odes. With poems such as ‘Ode of Withered Cleavage’, Olds continues to walk straight into the body as it wrinkles, and she continues to surprise the reader by projecting onto and somewhat burrowing into another person’s body. This time, again, it’s her mother’s. The second part of ‘Ode of Withered Cleavage’ moves from a description of her elderly mother’s cleavage and the desire for touch, to the speaker’s own desire to disappear, to become so aligned with the ageing process that she could be unrecognisably old:

My mother’s desire to be touched,
late in her life, was so intense I could
almost hear it, like a keening from the hundred little
purselets of each nipple, each like a
rose-red eraser come alive and starvacious.
And now my own declivity is
arroyoing, and if I live long enough
my chest over my breastbone may look like
an internal organ, a heart trailing its
arteries and veins. I want to praise
what goes one way, what never recovers.
I want to live to an age when I look
hardly human, I want to love them
equally, birth and its daughter and
mother, death.

Here Olds writes herself into birth, motherhood, death, and rebirth, all in one sweeping poem. That useful beauty that Kellaway writes about is present toward the end of Schwartz’s interview with Olds, and the peaceful strength with which Olds approaches writing seems on display even as she is taking a walk with the journalist:

As we walked together, Olds limped, the result of arthritis. She wasn’t in pain, she said, just slowed down. In “Unmatching Legs Ode,” she acknowledges that she is not so happy about the state of the soles of her feet, those “two brains, reading the ground” now missing half their nerves and rendered “numbskulls.” But she still takes pleasure in her odd-couple legs, the left looking shrunken next to the swollen right […] She thinks of her legs as “best friends,” of hers and of each other. It’s hard to imagine that the time will come to give them up.

“I’m sad they will rot”, Olds writes in ‘Unmatching Legs Ode’. “I wish our bodies / could leave us when they are done with us— / leave our spirits here, and walk away.”

Whether choreographing as an outward analysis or writing introspectively, Tharp and Olds undoubtedly share a capacity and desire to detail the development of the female body over a lifetime. This desire is not, however, quite the same as the vanity of the artist who composes a paper and pencil compass to paint and sculpt from a perfected blueprint. Rather, Tharp and Olds have lived out a different kind of bodily mapping for entirely different purposes. Throughout impactful moments in a female body’s life, Tharp and Olds have been parallel in their need to find answers for living life by leaning towards death. Tharp has recorded her body to calculate what it can do in each transitional phase of its existence. Her tendency to analyse from outside is likely due to her training in front of the mirror from a childhood reared in dance, and the personal scrutiny she continued to apply through filming herself in her attic, and choreographing works like ‘The Catherine Wheel’. Olds, meanwhile, has often sought to embody others even as she writes of the experiences of her body, looking out from within in order to heal or baptise her own flesh anew, in a forever-dance of resistance in which secrets are released but somehow remain secrets through the coding of poems. If both artists are, indeed, looking in different directions during this process, it can be argued that they are also pledging an allegiance to death for themselves and others to learn from in a mission to survive their bodily deterioration, no matter how close they come to the bone.

Natalya Anderson won the 2017 Moth Poetry Prize for her poem ‘A Gun in the House’, and the 2014 Bridport Prize for her poem ‘Clear Recent History’. This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 111:3, autumn 2021. © The Poetry Review and the author.