In the Heights

Two ballets, composed almost 50 years apart, speak in different voices on profound matters

Mahalia Jackson sings soul-liftingly of the "upper room" mentioned in the Christian gospels, where the Last Supper took place. Tharp crafted a gathering place for elevated discussion among 13 dancers. In a time when rapacity, craving for power, prejudice, corruption, and hatred are warring on the world's stage, it's reassuring to see power channeled into people doing their complicated, demanding, gorgeous best in harmony with others.

Tudor's 1937 Dark Elegies expresses heroism very differently. This small, heart-wrenching jewel of a ballet, set to Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, was first performed by Ballet Theatre when Tudor arrived in America in 1940 to join the new company. Donald Mahler has restaged it, and the dancers perform it with exemplary sensitivity.

The subject is grief and loss as suffered by a small village. The man (Troy Cook) who sings Mahler's songs on the deaths of children sits on a bench, dressed in the same simple clothes everyone else wears. The ballet is not dramatic in any literal sense, but Tudor makes us imagine that this community has lost its children—perhaps through an epidemic, more likely through a disaster at sea. Nadia Benois's backdrop suggests an icebound shore.

The 12 people who have gathered for a ritual of mourning are stoic, restrained in their grief, as if they would never regain composure if they once let go. Still, there are outbursts in the private laments: Michele Wiles's arms stretching wide as if they'd rip her chest in two; Julie Kent hurling herself in a ball into Grant DeLong's arms, hands covering her face; Sascha Radetsky spreadeagled in the air; the anger behind Jesus Pastor's reaching gestures; Adrienne Schulte's simple stance in fourth position on pointe that seems to pierce the earth.

The costumes, especially the women's plain, loose-fitting dresses and head scarves, are more in accord with 1930s modern-dance costumes than anything usually seen on a ballet stage at that time. And Tudor used the ballet vocabulary sparingly. Occasional pointework may express a sharp intake of breath, an amplification of grief. And much of the time, the people's arms hang at their sides—gesturing when necessary, never decorating a step. The result is to intensify the emotion in the music, as if the songs were pouring through the distraught bodies, expressing all that the community can't articulate.

Few of the soloists dance alone on stage. Almost always there are watchers, ready to step in when a woman collapses or a man needs comforting. Their group passages are quiet, almost numb folk dances—simple steps in a line, in a circle. Near the end, the scenery is changed in a blackout, and the new backdrop shows a slightly warmer, if still somber landscape. Now there are no more outbursts; the tragedy has been absorbed and, as much as possible, accepted. The scene is called "Resignation," and its small dances can break your heart.

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