Cogito: John Branch


In the Upper Room

Choreography: Twyla Tharp (American Ballet Theater)

Although I originally reviewed In the Upper Room six years ago, it has stayed with me ever since. It will be revived by ABT this season and I anticipate seeing it again, with great pleasure. This is why:

“If the State Department wants to present a compelling image of America to the world, it should commission Twyla Tharp to prepare a touring version of In the Upper Room, which American Ballet Theater has been performing at New York’s City Center lately, and send it out to sweep the globe. Set to a propulsive score by Philip Glass that itself unites traditional and modern instrumentation (i.e., acoustic and electronic), you’re instantly struck by how Tharp has put toe shoes and sneakers on the same stage. But its easy blending of what might once have been called high and low styles—the Old World rhetoric of ballet and the New World vernacular of Tharp’s modern-dance vocabulary, with arm flings and head tosses, sashays and shimmies and sidles—isn’t the only surprise.

Seeing it performed by a ballet company whose repertory includes many of the classics, with their hierarchical structure of principals, soloists, and corps dancers mirroring the stratified social scheme of a czar’s court, you notice also how absolutely democratic this piece is. As an idiom of the theater has it, there are no small parts here, nor are there isolated star turns; Tharp has built her work from solos, duets, trios, and larger ensembles, overlapping or succeeding one another in increasing complexity.

The title and the number of dancers (13) recall the Last Supper, suggesting that In the Upper Room may be some sort of transcendent vision, a sharing of divine wisdom and practice, even a notion of heaven—everything is swathed in clouds of smoke and illuminated in white light, and the dancers magically emerge from nowhere and exit into nothingness. To me, though, this breathless dynamo of a dance is more a vision of America: it’s got sass and speed, an expert use of technology, that melting together of styles, muscularity, joy in exertion, pride in prowess, a bold fashion sense (costumes by Norma Kamali), and above all else an unstoppable energy. But maybe these two visions amount to the same thing. As Susan Sontag remembered someone saying, America is a nation with the soul of a church. And here is one of our greatest testaments. Would that the world could see it.”

ABT: Bard College (November 4—6) bard;  New York City Center (November 8–13) city center.

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