In the Upper Room
PBT Company members in Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room (2010)
Choreographer: Twyla Tharp
Music: Philip Glass
Costumes: Norma Kamali
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
World Premiere: Twyla Tharp Dance Company, August 28, 1986
PBT Performance Date: April 2010
Program Notes (from PBT playbill, 2010. Notes provided by Twyla Tharp Dance)
Twyla Tharp thinks of the two women who initiate In the Upper Room in terms of ceramic, Chinese temple guard dogs. From the "cells" of their side-by-side moves, with stretching, kicking and swinging legs, the dramatic, nearly religious and hypnotic, on-rushing work pours forth as one of the most popular of Tharp's. (Standing ovations have become a consistent part of performance history.)
An inky yet celestially lighted void frames the advancing, receding, exploding and imploding activities of the many-layered work. Beyond her "china dog" markers, the choreographer characterizes the running-shoe-wearing three couples as "stompers" and two pointe-shoe-wearing women as a "bomb squad." All work according to their nicknames, stomping, and "bombing" the space with their finesse, energy and force.
The cast of "participants" builds gradually and, once established, evolves partly through an altering of costumes and through elaborating their dancing and their connection to the other dancers. Tharp has described her movements here as "fierce, driving, and relentless," aiming to make some furiously fast unison moves "burn the retina." The dancers play with and feed on the music's driving pulse, much of their locomotion can be seen as jogging, sometimes nonchalantly backwards. The "bomb squad" amplifies into the "ballet cadre" and their red costuming stands out with special fire in the black velvet surround.
The music's unwinding, and unskeining character climaxes in a finale that encapsulates the entire ballet up to that point,with each recapitulation colored and/or twisted this way or that from its original presentation. With the first-time appearance of the entire cast, the piece winds down. In the process, it re-dramatizes the magical void created as a scenic component by Tipton's innovative lighting plot. The dancers variously disappear into the dense, rich blackness that stands like a shadowy infinity behind the more immediate space showered by shafts of warm light. Two "stomper" men bolt backward into the void by way of throwing forward a sharp punch as they "disappear." For summary punctuation the "china dogs" cue the ringing down of the curtain by pulling down their fists, as if sharply closing shut a window blind.