At the conclusion of a complex year, Twyla Tharp’s message at the Rackham Graduate Exercises was to “keep it simple.”
A Tony and Emmy award-winning choreographer and dancer, Tharp delivered a virtual address April 30 as part of an online ceremony for those receiving University of Michigan advanced degrees.
Tharp has performed, presented and taught at U-M several times over a multi-decade career, the first time in 1964 at Rackham Auditorium as a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company through the University Musical Society. The following year, she founded Twyla Tharp Dance.
She shared a story and a “reward” with graduates at the start of her address, saying she recently had dinner with an associate who worked with her to complete a recent project. The colleague went on a bike ride in the early spring sun to bring Tharp a bouquet of flowers, saying how wonderful she felt to be offering it to her for a job well done.
“I pass it on to you now, happily,” she said, her camera panning to the bouquet. “Mind you, getting the job done had its moment of sheer ugliness, but what I will always remember from our tough times together is the picture of her pedaling these flowers in the sun, with joy in her heart during the pandemic.”
The COVID-19 pandemic prevented Tharp from delivering her address in person, and she acknowledged it was “so strange to be at this blank distance from you in our new normal” but that she envisioned a sea of faces surrounded by maize and blue.
“As you move your hard-won degrees forward into our new hybrid world — a place where there is so very little memory of normal — I suggest you keep it simple,” she said. “You have worked hard in your fields, and you have received the great honor of your degree. Be humble as you start over and be generous in sharing your values.”
She cautioned, however, that this is not an easy task as confusion can set in over time. To address that, she offered a simple solution.
“Imagine a drawer. Write out one noun and one verb. This is your purpose,” she said. “For example, mine is ‘make dance.’ Now lock the drawer, keep it for the rest of your life. Reference it whenever things are confused. Keep it forever simple.”
Tharp also urged the graduates to trust the text in their degrees.
“Remember the feeling of this very moment for the rest of your life,” she said. “Breathe in, breathe out. Now you are breaking loose from the containment of your formal education and you are beginning to pedal in the spring sunshine to bring your learning into good use.”
President Mark Schlissel shared with the graduates his appreciation for their efforts during a time of multiple challenges.
“My heart goes out to our graduates, their families and friends, to all of us who have been affected by the pandemic, racism and assaults on human rights,” he said. “Education — advanced education in particular — holds a key to our progress on all of our current challenges. That’s part of why this day is so poignant for me, and I presume for you as well.”
Michael J. Solomon, dean of the Rackham Graduate School, said he applauds the tenacity, determination of resolve of this year’s graduates and offered words of hope and caution.
“We are hopeful of the promise of the vaccines, yet mindful of the threat the virus still poses,” he said. “We are anxious for some kind of return, yet aware that for many things, including the ways we work, network and even explore career opportunities, there is no going back.”