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By Wendy Perron
With the driving Philip Glass music still ringing in my head, I am going to take a stab at why Tharp’s ballet has endured for 25 years. It came out of an era when the belief in “pure movement” was still strong. Many of us at the time embraced Merce Cunningham’s idea that dance could just be itself and not have to serve a story—that dancing itself was the main thing. Twyla took that idea and made it sing.
In the Upper Room is about flow. It’s about going with the exhilarating Glass rhythms and not holding back. Within that flow are both fun and spirituality, sneakers and pointe shoes, strong women and game men.
Embedded in the choreography are nuggets of Twyla’s past work up until that point. The chopping motion with straight, parallel forearms, done by the two main women and the third who sometimes joins them (played on Tuesday night by Gillian Murphy and Kristi Boone, with Misty Copeland joining them) is like the first move of her Fugue (1970). The wobbly head in that same phrase reminds me of Sara Rudner, who did so much to develop Tharp’s work the first 20 years. (Some of these details are glossed over by the ABT dancers, but they catch the spirit of it.) The pristine ballerina role (danced by Paloma Herrera) is like the Erica Goodman role in the original Deuce Coupe in 1973. And the simple device of having dancers enter from upstage and come downstage again and again—that’s from The One Hundreds (1970). But with Upper Room, the fog covers up the actual upstage curtain so it seems they are coming out of nowhere. What was a straightforward path in The One Hundreds (which was a series of unbelievably inventive movement in unison) turns into a mysterious circular world in Upper Room.
Seeing this ballet from 1986 makes me nostalgic for a time when women were strong and independent in Tharp’s work. The two main women, like bookends, start and end the piece. A cornucopia of beautiful movement and funny or stirring moments unfolds from their strength and athleticism. Yes, the Paloma figure gets lifted a lot. But the Gillian and Kristi roles hold down the fort.
The way Tharp puts classical lyricism next to lunges and shimmies reflects a belief that all styles fit together in one cosmic flow. Each section overlaps the next—or at least that's the illusion. You feel carried on the current, rather than taking a moment to digest each section. And it all escalates at the end when everything gets reprised all at once. It’s positively polymorphous! And when you have someone like Sascha Radetsky tearing through the movement, it gets wildly exciting. (Not long ago Ethan Stiefel used to do that.) It’s OK if it gets a bit messy—it’s even better.
So why has In the Upper Room lasted for 25 years? It's about pleasure and daring, about music and dance. It’s a great ballet and a great accomplishment. If you can get to City Center to see it this weekend, go.
David Hallberg and Paloma Herrera in In the Upper Room. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.