Twyla Tharp Review: In the Upper Room & Nine Sinatra Songs
October 21, 2022 | New York City Center – New York, NY, USA
Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room is, undeniably, the most exhilarating ballet of all time.
One can never experience witnessing In the Upper Room for the first time twice. Nothing quite compares to the emotional exhilaration of seeing the ballet with fresh eyes and discovering that in the tumultuous nature of the choreography and the blazing horns of Philip Glass’ score one may actually feel quite at peace. The ballet has its roots in the 80s – if a ballet to Philip Glass isn’t enough of an indication – but Tharp crafted her work with a foresight to transcend meaning in time.
Regardless of how many years later the ballet is performed, the journey the audience is taken on echoes in similar sentiments – some perhaps more nostalgic, as Tharp has lured dance enthusiasts to sold-out theatres with In the Upper Room for decades.
However, as Tharp hired a superhuman army for this iteration of the ballet at City Center, I believe it asked the audience to question not the intention nor originality of the choreography, but rather the chemistry and execution of the dancers.
As a critic, the lineup of the two Tharp classics demanded the sharpest eye for detail. With In the Upper Room on the bill with Nine Sinatra Songs and dancers featured from world-renowned companies, Tharp was throwing down the gauntlet claiming perhaps not perfection, but certainly a force to be reckoned with.
I was surprised I found I had so much to say and such a strong opinion formed on a ballet I’ve seen so many times, and quickly, I discovered a problem with a stage filled with powerhouse performers.
In the Upper Room is a stimulating ballet in the sense the audience never has a shortage of convoluted, joyous, and exertive movement to observe. Moments of unified calmness and repeating phrases help anchor the audience through the whirl of motion.
However, as the dancers in this cast are all coming from such diverse training, the moments of unity were rarely executed in actual unison. One dancer would accent movement on the downside of the beat while another would anticipate the count; one dancer held their fingers more rigidly in a very textbook French position while another would have relaxed wrists.
The details were lacking, and even though the dancers rehearsed intensely together in the month leading up to the performance, only so much training can help compared to a lifetime of studying a technique. For such a complicated ballet, these small stylistic differences stood out like a sore thumb and made certain ensemble moments hard to watch.
Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room
Overall, the dancers Tharp calls “The Stompers” (they perform in white sneakers throughout the ballet and are the driving force of the rhythm, both beginning and closing the work) could have used more energy. Their casual movement appeared stiff and the typically gravity-defying ending felt lackluster. A certain abandon that I usually see “The Stompers” perform in other renditions of this ballet was missing for me – but again, there I am comparing my past experiences of In the Upper Room to this performance.
However, the group breakouts gave the audience chills as the performers broke free of molds and danced close to ecstasy – and a couple of artists, in particular, deserve a glowing mention.
Whenever the trio ensemble of “shirtless” Stomper men (of which the ladies of the audience made sure to express they appreciated during the standing ovation), I could not tear my eyes from Lloyd Knight, principal dancer at Martha Graham. In the Upper Room is branded as being “physically demanding” – and I never mind seeing the exertion on the dancer’s faces and bodies. I believe it quite adds to the transcendent journey.
However, he moved through Tharp’s choreography with something magical existing between nonchalance and pizazz. The movement fit Knight like a glove as he made the grueling steps look like a walk in the park even through the height of the ballet. Knight added a shimmy of the shoulders, a roll of the hips, a slight smirk to the exalting stream of movement that made it impossible to draw my eyes from him. Knight transformed Tharp’s abstract concept.
Watching Upper Room, I normally get a sense of dance being unattainable – in an almost religious sense of the meaning – but Knight lured me in as if his movement was saying “Shhhh, I have a secret.”
If Knight had a secret, then Cassandra Trenary, principal of American Ballet Theatre, had something to tell us all and shout it from the rooftops.
Trenary is indisputably beginning the peak of her promising career as she has continued to prove her diversity as not only a dancer but also as an actress. Trenary stood out from every other dancer as she didn’t only exist in Tharp’s movement but breathed it.
The steps began at her heart center and radiated through every dark corner of the theatre filling it to the brim. Even if the star ran across the back of the stage, I had to tear my eyes from even the wildest flips the featured dancers were executing to stare at her exuding lightness.
Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs
Tharp shared in an interview that her decision to open with In the Upper Room and close with the light-hearted and audience-friendly Nine Sinatra Songs was intentional, but for me, the choice was jarring. Sinatra Songs following Upper Room was like enjoying a dessert that is too indulgent after a four-course dinner. I would have appreciated Sinatra Songs, I believe, more if it had been placed first in the program, or perhaps on a different bill altogether.
However, Tharp’s diverse casting choices proved far more effective in Nine Sinatra Songs than In the Upper Room. Each of the couples dazzled the audience by depicting a heterosexual couple in different stages of a relationship: love at first sight, hot and heavy, a rough night out, something good coming to an end.
Jacqueline Harris and James Gilmer, both dancers at Alvin Ailey, performed with such lightness and ease as they flew through death-defying lifts. Harris’ eyes truly sparkled brighter than her innocent pink dress and swept me away in her princess-like narrative to Softly As I Leave You.
Once again, Trenary stole the show, and this time along with her partner Benjamin Freemantle, a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer. As Trenary entered the stage with a free-flowing black dress and a shaggy wig to One for My Baby, she proved her worth adopting the persona of a steamy drunken night out.
Freemantle was suave, gallant, and compellingly humorous; together, their connection was immaculate. Not only the movement, but their facial expressions told a story of humor, passion, and anger that yielded both whoops and laughter from the audience.
Finally, Daisy Jacobson of LA Dance Project and Reed Tankersley, freelance performer and ex-dancer with Tharp’s touring company, gave a firecracker performance nuanced with deliciously tight footwork and innocent humor to Somethin’ Stupid.
Tharp’s program closed its doors this past Sunday, October 23, as many of the dancers returned to their home companies’ fall performances. Next up on City Center’s fall programming for dance is Alvin Ailey’s annual City Center season from November 30 – December 24.
Featured Photo for this Twyla Tharp review of Jacqueline Harris and James Gilmer in Twyla Tharps’ Nine Sinatra Songs. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
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