Dance - Twyla Tharp's The Princess and the Goblin hits the stage after 20 years of planning

The legendary choreographer collaborates with the Atlanta Ballet for a new high-profile work

If the name Twyla Tharp evokes an image of a twirling pixie of a dancer with eager eyes, a perky smile, and Peter Pan haircut, you've obviously never met her. There exist a few photographs, mostly from the '70s and '80s, in which this superficial vision could be said to match some version of reality. But in person, she acts about as pixieish as a Rottweiler.

As one of the world's most celebrated dancers/choreographers, the 70-year-old Tharp adheres to a punishing level of self-discipline, an unyielding perfectionism, and a fierce devotion to work. She has spent a lifetime pushing herself to her own personal limits, occasionally taking a break just long enough to berate those who are not pushing themselves to theirs.

Tharp is in Atlanta to present with the Atlanta Ballet her most recent full-length work, The Princess and the Goblin, a project she's been contemplating for 20 years. A ballet version of George MacDonald's classic 19th-century children's novel set to Schubert, The Princess and the Goblin tells the story of Princess Irene, whose vain and negligent father is too preoccupied to realize that the children of his kingdom are being kidnapped by goblins. It's up to Irene to venture into the underworld to rescue them with the help of her best friend Curdie and an invisible magic thread that connects her to her great-great-grandmother. It's not surprising that Tharp has so much admiration for the story. "Irene is a character who does the job," she says. "And she does it by herself."

Although the ballet comes late in her career, the major new work marks a number of firsts that has piqued national interest in the project. In recent years, Tharp has stuck to breezy Broadway fare like Movin' Out and Come Fly with Me. The Princess and the Goblin is a surprising late-career return to ballet and classical music for the artist. Few contemporary choreographers are currently making traditional story ballets. It's also Tharp's first time working with children, first time adapting a story from source material, and the first time she's worked with the Atlanta Ballet.

Tharp's all-consuming work ethic is well known in the dance world, and the Atlanta Ballet has become intimately familiar with it over the past several months. The moment Tharp stepped off the plane in Atlanta, she got to work, says Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall, who picked her up at the airport. "The first thing she said to me was that she wanted to go to the dance center," he says.

Alessa Rogers, who will dance the lead role of Princess Irene, says initially she was intimidated, even terrified, at the thought of being in the studio with Tharp six hours a day. "She's the most relentlessly dedicated person I've ever met," says Rogers.

"She videotapes every run-through and every rehearsal, and she reviews it that night," says John Welker, who will take on the dual role of King Papa and King of the Goblins. "I asked Twyla in the studio one day if she ever took time off. She said, 'No. Why would I want to do that? If I took a vacation, I would create dances.' This is just her life."

Over the years, Tharp has dealt with every type of dancer in the book. She knows when a dancer needs coaxing, when another might need pushing, praise, criticism, a bit of play. And she reminds them constantly of their worth as artists. "She warmed up very quickly to us as dancers," says Jacob Bush, who will dance Curdie. "I always got the sense that she was for the dancers ... She told me that dancers are not just normal people, that not everyone can do what we do."

Early in the process of creating The Princess and the Goblin, something wasn't working in a crucial scene. Her questions to the dancers about what was wrong were met with a shy silence.

"Don't worry about hurting my feelings," she told them. "I don't have any."

From the time Tharp was 1-and-a-half years old, her mother enforced total discipline, designing outrageously busy schedules of piano, dance, violin, gymnastics, baton, and tap lessons. She insisted on straight A's, and yanked her daughter out of a class and even changed schools if she earned anything less. At age 8, Tharp decided to become her "own jailer," as she puts it in her autobiography, Push Comes to Shove. She began plotting out the rigorous daily routines herself, starting work and practice at dawn and ending only when she went to sleep.

As she describes in her autobiography, her younger siblings didn't take to the same demanding routines, which Tharp says made her feel like an only child. One of her only high school friends was a piano prodigy who hanged himself in a state institution soon after graduation. She was nearly kicked out of her first dance company after a near-unanimous vote by her fellow dancers. Her two marriages were brief, and her son from the second marriage asked at 11 years old if he could be sent to boarding school. She obliged.

"She's so cold she could use a refrigerator for central heating," a New York Times dance critic once quipped. Throughout her life, Tharp has fought isolation and anxiety through reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Proust. When not working or reading, she's meticulously drafting work and study schedules, in control of every moment of every day.

Her intensity may not have won her many close friends, but it's won her plenty of accolades. She's the most famous choreographer in the world, a household name, a bankable star, and she has truckloads of awards and honorary degrees, Tony, Emmy, Guggenheim, Kennedy, you name it. Does success at least bring some sense of satisfaction? "Fortunately not," she says. "It's always about the next one." EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct an erroneous statement about Tharp's first dance company. She was nearly kicked out but remained with the company.

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