Contributed by Jason Andrew / That a work of art can mean something from generation to generation, that it can continue to reflect not only the time in which it was made but also make us think years later, is what makes it a masterwork. Seldom in the realm of dance, the most ephemeral of art forms, is a work appreciated across disciplines, its worth acknowledged by a broader audience than originally targeted. We are lucky that at any time we can wander into a museum and stand face-to-face with a masterpiece by Picasso, Matisse, or O’Keeffe. We can’t do this with dance. Perhaps as virtual technology continues to expand, we will be able to experience the great dances of our time as if breathing the same air of the performers. Until then, we must wait. It’s been sixteen years since I last saw In the Upper Room by Twyla Tharp.
Although I studied ballet, I’m no balletomane. I first learned of Tharp’s ballet, which premiered August 28, 1986, not through its performance, but referential through the ballet In a Crowded Room, choreographed in 1993 by my friend Julia K. Gleich.
Clocking in at around 40 minutes, Tharp’s is a terror of a dance that starts with the dial set to ten then turns it north to twelve, thirteen, fourteen… you get it. The duration is equivalent of two grueling back-to-back VO2 Max treadmill tests (as a former professional track athlete, this is the treadmill test requiring an athlete to push themselves to exhaustion to determine their fitness).
Unlike a painting that remains in statis the moment it is complete, a dance is only as good as those performing it. Fortunately, during its recent four-day run at City Center, this dance was exceptionally performed by Tharp’s chosen cast of: Jeanette Delgado, Benjamin Freemantle, Jada German, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Daisy Jacobson, Lloyd Knight, Julian Mackay, Marzia Memoli, Stephanie Petersen, Reed Tankersley, Cassandra Trenary, Daniel Ulbricht, and Richard Villaverde.
The nine-section dance alternates between ballet and modern groups, which pump themselves up to a level of compulsive virtuosity (and undress) culminating in a furious finale. “You have the modern men which Twyla considers like the bass voices in the piece,” explained the dancer Kevin O’Day, who was part of the original cast, “and the modern women, who are like the alto voices. The ballet women are more like sopranos, and the men are like tenors. The movement is ‘voiced’ like that.” There’s some special terminology to go along with the ballet/modern distinction too. “The modern half are called stompers and squatters because the cast wears sneakers. And the ballet half are just called the ballet people,” said O’Day. He further noted:
I think what Twyla is doing in In the Upper Room is that she’s combining all the dance styles that you could grab onto to mold them into a new classic dance style. Even the movement that the modern people do in the piece is very classic. It’s bigger movement – really expansive and really open.
Beyond the peculiarities of genre, Tharp’s standards are simple: execute with precision and commitment. “One thing Twyla hates is a conservative performer,” O’Day said, “That’s her pet peeve. She hates people who hold back. She yells at people. Says it’s boring. Fix it. Change it.”
Tharp recognizes the difference between ballet and modern but believes that dance has a single root. In 2000, she told Charlie Rose:
I have always believed that dance has a root, and that is in the human body. And the human body can move. Anyone isolating any camps saying this belongs here and this belongs here was misguided. The techniques to be learned in the Classical ballet are real and the vocabulary has been developed for over 300 hundred years. The techniques of the so-called modern world are in a way much more recent, but in a way much more ancient because they have been practiced since the beginning of time – in tribal dances and in the beginnings of theater. As long as you know you are going home you can learn a lot from the Egyptians.
In those days, Tharp had been working with Teddy Atlas, a boxer who had trained a young fighter named Mike Tyson. It still shows in the choreography: she once described the piece as “a display of athletic prowess based on endurance, power, speed, and timing.” Indeed, the cast I saw at City Center performed with a bracing air of reckless daring – on the edge of control in the way that Tharp is famous for. The speed of dancers’ movements reminded me of the long-exposure studies of light the photographer Barbara Morgan did in the early 1940s. As they moved on stage, my eye could capture only the traces of their ephemeral gestures, lending the enterprise a preternatural quality.
Tharp often references her childhood growing up on a Quaker farm in Indiana. She saw how the earth worked and understood the ancestry of place. She experienced how an entire community worked as an entity—tasks performed with precision. These elements of her background coalesce in In the Upper Room. High-energy repetitive moves fit with Philip Glass’ relentless score, which in 1987 critic Tobi Tobias – erroneously, in my view – dissed as “harsh” and akin to “a train rushing at great speed, boldly hooting.” Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design exists in a dense fog that makes the dancers appear spontaneously – reportedly the exact effect Tharp wanted. In his book Seventy-nine Short Essay on Design, Michael Bierut described Tipton’s design this way:
In the Upper Room is staged in an even, featureless haze. The dancers are invisible until they are picked out by Tipton’s precise, razor-sharp lighting. It’s a simple effect, familiar to anyone who has driven a car on a foggy night, but in the hands of this brilliant designer, the results are as mesmerizing as anything by James Turrell. As the piece reaches its climax, dancers materialize out of nowhere before your eyes… Tipton’s lighting is the kind of magic that delights you even when you know exactly how the trick works.
Tobias described the costumes, designed by Norma Kamali, as “full wardrobes ranging from glossy pajama outfits in convict stripes to screaming-red skimpies, the women’s accessorized with red pointe shoes over matching socks.” She added that Tharp “still hasn’t overcome the modern dancer’s grudge against classical dance. She’s set up this piece so that her dancers look handsome and confident only when they’re in sneakers.” If she really had it in for ballet, as Tobias suggested, I’m not sure the attitude endured. She told Rose that it had taken her 35 years to “size up against the absolutes” – namely, Martha Graham (whom she studied with) and George Balanchine (whom she never met but revered). I’d argue that she is not a reckless iconoclast, and that her creative genius – her directness, her temperament – could go a few rounds with the likes of Picasso. But we’ll never know because you can’t hang a Tharp alongside Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Don’t we all agree that Faith Ringgold gave Mr. P a run for his money when MoMA rehung the collection in 2019?
As a sidebar, it’s remarkable how powerful Tharp makes her women. Within duets, in which women typically succumb to the muscling of their male partners, the women are the ones dictating direction. Even when she makes them take a knee, they rise with authority, intent, and drive. It is a pair of women that open and close In the Upper Room, striking a marching pose with hands gripped into fists.
“Every dance directs the next so it’s always about learning,” Tharp said in a 2019 video interview, “It’s how do we launch from where we are to the future.”
The future where I can see the great Tharp “hanging” alongside a great Picasso.
In the Upper Room by Twyla Tharp, Choreography by Twyla Tharp, Music by Philip Glass; featuring Jeanette Delgado, Benjamin Freemantle, Jada German, Kaitlyn Gilliland, Daisy Jacobson, Lloyd Knight, Julian MacKay, Marzia Memoli, Stephanie Petersen, Reed Tankersley, Cassandra Trenary, Daniel Ulbricht, and Richard Villaverde . NY City Center, October 19-23, 2022.
About the author: Jason Andrew is an independent curator and writer based in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Follow him on Instagram: @jandrewarts