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Work Out

There's a clip from “Twyla Moves,” the PBS American Masters episode about Twyla Tharp, of Tharp rehearsing with dancers in Central Park. It's from 1969: They were wearing regular street clothes, kicking and turning, throwing their bodies up and across, down and around as baby carriages, football players, and police on horseback meandered through them. Indifferent towards aesthetic perfection or public perception (not to mention whether or not their sneakers got stained), the dancers launched themselves through the park, falling and flying to the point of exhaustion.


Twyla Tharp at City Center


New York City Center, New York, NY, October 21, 2022


Cecilia Whalen

Twyla Tharp's “In the Upper Room” at City Center. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

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It's one of Tharp's most famous characteristics as an artist, the fact that she sees few limits to the possibilities of the dancing body. She is constantly trying to cross more and more limits off of that list. One of her most renowned dances, “In the Upper Room,” which New York City Center presented as part of a special Tharp double bill, is a celebration of these impossibilities proven possible. The 1986 dance is an explosion of leaps and turns on pointe, Tharpian 80s grooves in white sneakers, and fantom tap moves. The dancers run and run, forward and backward, emerging from a mystical haze upstage: Jennifer Tipton's lighting that allows for dancers to appear and reappear as if they never left.

Twyla Tharp's “In the Upper Room” at City Center. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

To a nine section score by Philip Glass, “In the Upper Room” demonstrates the feat that is the dancer life: “It's about survival,” Tharp has said. “It takes stamina and wits, technique and determination—everything you've got to get through it.” It's technical, of course, in particular requiring quick and coordinated pointe work in stunning red shoes (featuring former Miami City Ballet star Jeanette Delgado, American Ballet Theatre principal Cassandra Trenary, and Marzia Memoli of the Martha Graham Company, among others). In some moments, it's “anti-technical,” opposing classical ballet rules with flexed feet in passés and turns on a demi-pointed pointe shoe. To the trained eye, a lot of this appears awkward and strange and you wonder, why do it like that? For Tharp, the enduring question is, why not?

The partnering work is wild and daring to say the least—there are split leaps where women are caught between the legs, and counterbalances with single hands. At one point, principal Graham dancer Lloyd Knight pushed his partner all the way up with just his arms, she resting in his palms in a seated position by his head.

Twyla Tharp's “In the Upper Room” at City Center. Photograph by Benjamin Miller

The incredible difficulty of these and other moments didn't go unnoticed in “Upper Room,” and that's because the dancers allow themselves to show the work behind the performance. There are many instances where the piece reflects a dance class—for one thing, the constant filing in from upstage reminds us of combinations across the floor. Mirroring is a motif as well, with dancers standing facing each other as they perform a phrase. It was exciting to see this stellar group of dancers, many of whom dance for the most prestigious American companies (members of New York City Ballet were present, as well), genuinely challenged, and confident enough to show it. They didn't hide exhaustion or discomfort, but embraced these, and their power came not so much from polished performance but from an unbridled attempt at something enormous. It's a John F. Kennedy “not-because-it's-easy-but-because-it's-hard,” kind of thing, and to see it on stage is tremendous.

Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmore in Twyla Tharp's ”Nine Sinatra Songs” at City Center. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

“In the Upper Room” was paired with “Nine Sinatra Songs,” Tharp's classic series of duets from 1982. Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer, glamorous duo from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, joined to dance the first, “Softly as I Leave You,” spinning and embracing radiantly.

The following duets vary in quality from the nostalgic to the saucy and silly. Delgado was paired with NYCB principal Danny Ulbricht in the final duet to “That’s Life.” After struggling and quarrels, the two reconcile in a striking surprise lift: Ulbricht, who had removed his tuxedo jacket, goes to grab it as Delgado runs full speed toward him. Just as soon as he has slipped it back on, he catches her in his arms in a double-straight-leg sideways position. They are followed by an ensemble dance to “My Way,” which concludes the piece.

Julian Mackay and Stephanie Peterson in Twyla Tharp's ”Nine Sinatra Songs” at City Center. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

As many have noted, despite its brilliant lifts, sparkling costumes (Oscar De La Renta), and shiny disco ball (scenic design by Santo Loquasto), “Nine Sinatra Songs,” looks today almost like a period piece. Its portrayal of relationships and gender roles appear old fashioned, as every duet is heterosexual, and the man does all the lifting. Choreographically, it remains exciting; thematically, it has lost potency.

“In the Upper Room,” however, maintains its poignance. Tharp found this reiteration of the piece particularly relevant in reflecting the stamina and sense of survival mandated by the pandemic. The piece is even more personal for dancers, who for two years found themselves confined to singular rooms as they studied and rehearsed over zoom.

“Twyla Moves” came out in March of 2021 and documented Tharp's own work zooming into rehearsals from her apartment. From her home, she is seen developing choreography and working on her own body. “Dancers have to work every day. I have to work every day,” she says. Discovery is everything, and everything comes from the practice. So, there she is, at 80 years old, rolling on the floor, hopping and skipping, tossing her head and swinging her arms.

Cecilia Whalen

Cecilia Whalen is a writer and dancer from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and holds a bachelor's degree in French. Currently, Cecilia is studying composition at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.



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