American Ballet Theatre’s fall season brought back Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”—an exhilarating cornucopia of energy, movement and sound, rightly regarded as one of Tharp’s greatest hits. It was a thrill to see this piece entering the company’s repertory after more than a decade-long hiatus. The dance, which Tharp created for her own company—Twyla Tharp Dance—in 1986, with its over-the-top trappings, may look a bit worn and quaint after all these years. But as the spirited performance of this Tharpian classic revealed—the piece still has a “wow effect” on the viewers; it still delivers a full-bodied invigorating punch and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire 40-minute run.
“In “In the Upper Room” not only do you see Twyla in just about everything the dancers do but you see the sources of her material—aerobics, karate, jogging, boxing, break dancing, and of course ballet,” dance critic Arlene Croce described Tharp’s eclectic choreographic style in the New Yorker. In this super-charged piece, “the legwork is done on little stilts and one feels no connection between the poised foot and the plunging instep or between the foot and the leg.” Tharp herself described the choreography here as “fierce, driving, and relentless.” It’s an indisputable tour de force and a vivid example of Tharp’s signature blend of loose-limbed steps with crisp classical technique.
The ballet is propelled—and immeasurably enhanced—by Philip Glass’s propulsive, incessant electronic score (composed specifically for this ballet), which shimmers, pulsates and roams, unfolding in invigorating surges of sound, building one momentum after another but seemingly never reaching an apex. Jennifer Tipton’s imaginative lighting effects shroud the stage in golden fog, adding to the atmosphere of ever-growing suspense and exhilaration. Norma Kamali’s costumes—(sneakers and red pointe shoes)—give the whole thing a distinctive and memorable appeal.
Tharp introduced this ballet to ABT in 1988, when she joined the company as an artistic associate, invited by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who at the time was ABT’s artistic director. The company definitely knows this piece inside out and takes a great pleasure in bringing this seemingly endless marathon of non-stop dancing to life.
The indomitable team of thirteen dancers, led by Devon Teuscher, Skylar Brandt, Aran Bell, Blaine Hoven, and Herman Cornejo, were able to keep up with Tharp’s merciless dynamics, storming, surfing, flying, gliding through the space and the music with admirable stoicism and aplomb. If there were a few rough moments and the finesse of the execution was not always there—these shortcomings were more than compensated by the cast’s energy, enthusiasm and the sheer force and excitement of their performance.
“In the Upper Room” culminated the superb program which began with the company’s brand new work, “Garden Blue,” created by Jessica Lang as part of ABT’s Women’s Movement—a multi-year initiative that spotlights female choreographers.
It was a stroke of genius to team up Tharp and Lang on the same program. Lang, who has been choreographing for nearly 20 years, began her career as a dancer and, after graduating from Juilliard in the late ‘90s, spent two years performing with Twyla Tharp Dance. In our interview last year, I asked Jessica about her years of working with Twyla. “I think my most memorable moments were when she was creating, especially when she was creating dances on me; and I remember how good it felt…I enjoyed the experience,” she said.
Lang is no stranger to American Ballet Theatre. “Garden Blue” marks her fifth commission with the organization (her very first piece, “Oblivion,” was commissioned by the ABT Studio Company in 1999) and the second created specifically for the main company. (Her first major commission for ABT, “Her Notes,” had its premiere in 2016 and was brought back to the repertory during the last fall season.)
“Garden Blue” showcases Lang’s penchant for a strong visual image. The choreographer told me during our interview that she draws inspiration for her work from visual arts and music. It’s no surprise, then, that for this piece Lang collaborated with Brooklyn-based visual artist, Sarah Crowner, who designed a mural-size backdrop, dominated by sky-blue color, and outfitted the dancers in vivid shades of magenta, red and orange. The artist also designed three huge wing-like wooden shapes, one of which was suspended from above and two others situated on the floor. In the course of the ballet, these two giant pieces would become part of the choreography, greatly adding to the visual appeal and perception of the dance.
For this piece, Lang uses seven dancers: three couples (each dressed in simple unitards of the same color) and a sole ballerina (in a white-and-green costume), who can be perceived as both a guardian angel and a heartbreaker. Using Antonín Dvořák (the first three movements of his piano trio “Dumky”) as her musical canvas, Lang creates a picturesque and deeply poetic world, where the dancers create one striking tableau after another as they form lyrical duets or move as a group, the wooden pieces becoming bridges, walls, hiding places and mighty wings. If in the beginning, you may find Lang’s ideas tentative, even awkward, the piece coheres and draws you in as it moves forward. What immediately attracts you is an irresistible jolt of vibrant colors and unexpected and attractive sculptural formations which Lang supplies in this piece in abundance. This is a work which will reward multiple viewings to absorb and discover the choreography’s many surprises and beauties.
The Saturday night’s cast was wonderful throughout. As the leading ballerina, Christine Shevchenko was a marvel of stylistic versatility and technical polish, dancing with notable freedom and exactitude. From the rest of the cast, Stephanie Williams and Joo Won Ahn (as a couple in yellow) particularly caught my attention, for their cryptic, even story-like duet (did Shevchenko’s character tried to destroy their happily-ever-after?) and for their finely articulated dancing.
This enjoyable program also featured Jerome Robbins’ “Other Dances”—a lovely pas de deux originally choreographed in 1976 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova and set to a mélange of waltzes and mazurkas by Frederic Chopin; it was delivered with subtlety and passion by the excellent Sarah Lane and Cory Stearns.