In the Heights

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

During this marvelously rewarding ABT season, two very different masterworks share a program, Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room and Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies.

In 1985, two years before Tharp's company premiered In the Upper Room at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I bought my first computer. Graduating from a Hermes portable to my Kaypro (then the favored word processor among writers) was a terrifying and thrilling experience. I felt as if my brain was being rewired. And since I felt the same way after seeing Tharp's piece, I began my review by throwing myself into the arms of metaphor.

"You'd think that a word processor would be ideal for writing about Twyla Tharp's amazing new dance, In the Upper Room. It has the speed, the flow. Blocks can be moved about, strings repeated, letters inserted into words, words replaced by other words. But it can't layer, or change the scale of its activity or cut loose in space. Worst of all, it has no muscle, no weight: it can't shear from a soft suspension into a tumble; it can't crack the whip one minute and toss the whip away the next."

Details

American Ballet Theatre
New York City Center
135 W. 55th Street
212-581-1212
Through October 6

Now I work on an iMac that makes the Kaypro seem primeval, but the analogy still holds. And sitting in the theater, in the grip of the superb production of Tharp's dazzling work that Keith Roberts staged for ABT, I couldn't even write legible notes and gave up trying.

Upper Room, first performed by ABT in 1988, is the culmination of Tharp works that ponder the distinctions and similarities between ballet and modern dance. Its roots reach down to Deuce Coupe, created for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973, in which Tharp dancers like Sara Rudner and Rose Marie Wright threaded their slippery way amid members of Joffrey's company (who weren't behaving all that classically either).

Tharp juxtaposes two squads early on. A pair of casually elegant women in sneakers (Gillian Murphy and Stella Abrera) start the piece far upstage, with Ethan Stiefel, Eric Underwood, and Isaac Stappas roistering in to join them a couple of times, apparently on their way elsewhere. Then two balletic couples appear in a show of mirror-image symmetry—Herman Cornejo and (as I remember) Craig Salstein turning Maria Riccetto and Laura Hidalgo in the world's slowest arabesque promenades on pointe. But all the time that the ballet crowd—including Paloma Herrera, David Hallberg, and Sasha Dmochowski (who doubles in both groups)) are building up Tharp-edgy, neoclassical steam, members of the sneakered gang are jittering around in the background.

The squads in Upper Room separate and mingle more formally, tackling compositional elements in their own ways, the two couples mirroring each other exactly. Abrera, Murphy, Erica Cornejo, Stiefel, Underwood, and Stappas) stomp in precise unison through their linear patterns (country dance reels transposed up untold notches). Tharp, however, plays sparingly, and daringly, with both unison and symmetry. You can hardly believe that Riccetto and Hidalgo in their frequent forays across the stage together can perform so many tiny fast foot maneuvers in such perfect accord. By the ninth and final section, with Tharp racheting up both speed and complexity in partnership with Philip Glass's score, the ballet people (the women in red pointe shoes) and the sneaker people have penetrated each other's ranks completely. Lickety-split, semi-simultaneous recaps of snippets from almost every passage we've seen previously burst into view and merge with something else.

Costumes, lighting, and music all abet Tharp's escalating display of prowess as heroism. The dancers begin in Norma Kamali's vertically striped, black-and-white outfits (little skirts for the ballet women, pants for everyone else). As the piece advances, the ballet women strip down to red tunics, the ballet men acquire red pants, the sneakered ones shed their shirts to show red tanktops and eventually appear bare-legged in red leotards (the women) and barechested (the men). With the aid of a smoke machine, Jennifer Tipton creates blazes of white light and crossing beams that partially mask the dancers' entrances and exits through slits in black curtains at the back of the stage. Glass's taped score, unlike Tharp's choreography, loops motifs many times, but he builds tension by adding new rhythms and sound qualities and raising pitches, so that each section of music appears to accumulate, as if stalking inexorably up a flight of stairs to reach empyrean heights.

In this world, partnering is both formal and irreverent, and classical positions are undermined by shifts in impetus or design. The ABT dancers attack Tharp's patterns with love and ferocity—like lions who haven't had a feeding this meaty for some time. At the opening-night curtain call, Roberts took the time to kiss every one of them. And so he should have. The audience didn't need Stiefel's exhilarated power salute during the bows to remind them that these were champions who'd triumphed in a heroic contest. (I found Stiefel's tough-guy act a bit over the top throughout; Stappas caught the sneaker spirit terrifically without blurring the movement.) Who would have thought Abrera could be this slinkily mischievous or Murphy this tough? H. Cornejo danced Tharp as if he'd been doing it for years. A second after the final blackout, the audience rose to its feet as one.

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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