The notion that some people are simply born artistic—and that there is a profile that can help organizations identify them—is quite firmly entrenched. All the talk of genetic determination nowadays undoubtedly has a lot to do with that. But the idea that creativity is a predetermined personality trait probably appeals at a psychological level because it gives people an excuse for not innovating or initiating change themselves, reducing the problem of creativity to a recruitment challenge.
Significantly, the people least likely to buy into the idea that creativity is preordained are the creative geniuses themselves. Choreographer Twyla Tharp, for one, doesn’t subscribe to any notion of effortless artistry. As someone who has changed the face of dance, she’s certainly qualified to have an opinion. The winner of a MacArthur fellowship (popularly called “the genius grant”), two Emmy awards, and a Tony award, she has written and directed television programs, created Broadway productions, and choreographed dances for the movies Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus. Tharp, now 66, did all this while creating more than 130 dances—many of which have become classics—for her own company, the Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. The author of two books, she is now in the process of simultaneously developing new ballets for the Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
At her Manhattan home, Tharp met with HBR senior editor Diane Coutu to discuss what it takes to be a choreographer. In these pages, she shares what she has learned about fostering creativity, initiating change, and firing even top-notch performers when push comes to shove. In her suffer-no-fools way, she talks about her “monomaniacal absorption” with her work and the need to be tough, even ruthless, when that work is at stake. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.