writers on dancing


Twyla's New Testament

"Les Sylphides," "Dark Elegies," "In the Upper Room,"
American Ballet Theatre
Fall Season
City Center
New York
October 26, 2005
by Nancy Dalva

copyright ©2005 by Nancy Dalva

"He shall show you a large upper room furnished." (Luke, xxii, 12)
"In  the Upper Room" came roaring back to life at American Ballet Theatre this week after a decade's absence, and after forty minutes of Twyla Tharp's glorious, break-neck invention, the audience roared back. What a fabulous ride! Stoked by Philip Glass's score, enveloped in Jennifer Tipton's smoke and light, shedding layers of Norma Kamali costumes every time they hit the wings, the company preached Tharp's American gospel. She choreographed " Upper Room" for her own company in 1986, and brought it with her when she merged with ABT in 1988. "Upper Room" posited then, and posits now, a utopian vision—not about the afterlife, but about the here and now. Twyla's  large upper room is the stage. Her stated belief—as you can read it in this dance—is that if we work hard enough, we can reinvent ourselves. Tharp is the most American of choreographers—hers is a democracy of movement. Not a peaceable kingdom, where lion and lamb lie down together, but a kingdom where the lion and the lamb mate.
Like so many utopian schemes, hers can falter on the individuals called to participate—and, one suspects in this case, that some of those called upon collapse afterwards in the wings. And yet, the dance expands to absorb whoever is dancing it. Here, there was one superlative Tharpian, Ethan Stiefel, and a variety of others, who attacked the work in varying styles, but uniform dedication. The work was already a marriage of Tharp (the idiom, not the person) and ballet. Now it is a marriage of Tharp and various approaches to ballet. In particular, Paloma Herrera brings a Swan Queen projection and her own timing and phrasing and decoration to the piece. In fact, her presence recalls the lone ballerina role in "Douce Coupe," the infamous "crossover" work Tharp made for her own troupe and The Joffrey Ballet in 1973. Further, Herrera is a ballerina who likes a partner, and even requires a partner. Real Tharp girls don't depend on partners, they use partners. They depend on themselves. But there's nothing unreal about Herrera, and thus "In the Upper Room" absorbs another kind of being. (There's room at the inn.) In so doing, the dance proves itself to be not merely a statement of its time, but a classic. In contrast to Herrera, Maria Riccetto and Laura Hidalgo take on the twinned ballerina roles as independent creatures, and in a much more modernist—shall we say Balanchinian?—mode. No visible preparations, and enough speed to get where they are going just a bit before they need to. This speed is a deep Tharpian necessity, along with the necessity to dance backwards, like a film rewinding itself. Retrograde is as vital in Tharp as forward, and it isn't really about moving backwards. It is about not turning your back. Neither can you pounce with your back turned, nor can you defend yourself. You cannot seize the day if you aren't facing it. Besides, if you look back, you might repeat yourself. This is made clear in the structure of the dance. Nine sections (just like 1982's "Nine Sinatra Songs") but not a theme and variations. Rather, a nine-part invention. And with a plot, too.
At the beginning of the piece, two framers of the constitution—Stella Abrera, who's an excellent Tharp dancer, and Gillian Murphy, who can do anything— bound in wearing sneakers and begin the action as if channelling Tharp as she herself danced. Next, three guys bound in—Stiefel, Eric Underwood, and Isaac Stappas. It's certainly fair to think of them as three Baryshnikovs. In fact, according to her own chronology, Tharp had just choreographed the Baryshnikov vehicle "White Nights" when she made this dance. (Is there something in here, too, of the low-down magnetism of Gregory Hines, the other principal male in that flick?)
In part two of "Upper Room," Tharp introduces two more gals in sneakers–to make up a quartet. One won't return again until the penultimate section. (Sasha Dmochowski.) This could be one of those accidents of rehearsal, like the girl who falls down in Balanchine's "Serenade"—a moment you can actually find in this dance, when two guys collapse, and, being Tharpians, bounce right up again. Or, it might be an affectionate recapitulation–or subliminal recollection—of Tharp's all-girl troupe beginnings, and  the structural primer set forth then in a work called "The Fugue." These, of course, are the musings of an aficionado–but a dance is not a classic unless it absorbs not only various performances but various views, and still maintains its essential nature, supremely undisturbed, even at high velocity.
And so it goes, with the dancers surfing the music or slicing though it just as they bound and slice through the smoke and light—music is time, light is space–separate in styles, but equal. Everything that happens us unpredictable. And then it happens, in part six. Modern and ballet mate, with—read into this what you will—the sneakered girls of the opening dancing with the two of the danseurs. Moxie calls to macho, and vice versa. After this, the dance just pelts on, driven now by its own energy, sweeping the audience along, and you don't notice who's wearing what kind of shoes. Everyone's a Tharpian. At the curtain, after the initial bows, Keith Roberts, who did the staging, came out to join the cast. By then, the house was on its feet.

"In the Upper Room" was preceded on the program by the return to repertory of "Dark Elegies," the Antony Tudor gloomfest set to Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" in 1937. The company got the style, but perhaps not the tone. It wasn't grim enough. From the overall performance, you wouldn't know something really awful had happened, and that it had affected everyone. Though you certainly sensed something had happened, or was happening—the coming of winter, say; or a bad fishing day in the iceberg-infested waters depicted on the backdrop. As for style—there are interesting arrowed arms and abdominal contractions that look like Graham, juxtaposed with a rather pretty classical palette, all laid forth with folk dance structural devices. Fusion, but not. (The soloists do the ballet, the modern elements are more communal, and the entire cast look like villagers, complete with head scarves for the ladies.) The trouble here was that, with the exception of Julie Kent, who looked profoundly grieved, it all seemed rather vague. Unless of course you knew the music or you spoke German and could follow the lyrics, which are about the death of children. Since I wasn't much carried away by the action, the chief interest to me choreographically was how much, unexpectedly, this ballet reminded me of Mark Morris—the song suite, the communality, and so forth. (Morris would have, of course, provided the lyrics in a program insert.) The chief pleasure, and I cannot overstate this, was the Mahler, sung by the handsome baritone Troy Cook from a bench to the side of the dancers, with David March conducting from the pit. Cook's voice is beautiful, and his way with lieder direct and affecting. If he makes an album, I'll play it all the time. The program opened with Peter Quanz's "Kaleidoscope," reviewed here last week.

Volume 3, No. 40
October 31, 2005

copyright ©2005 Nancy Dalva



DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Christopher Correa
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Eva Kistrup
Gia Kourlas
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Sandi Kurtz
Alexander Meinertz
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Tom Phillips
Naima Prevots
Susan Reiter
Lisa Rinehart
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan
last updated on October 31, 2005