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"In the Upper Room" and the Philip Glass scorepowerful and ambivalent responses to it


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#1 bart

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 05:28 AM

I"ve just seen my first performances (by Miami City Ballet) of Tharp's "In the Upper Room." I had not previously heard much about this ballet, and I was astonished by how disorienting and powerful my responses were to it.

12 hours after the performance my sensory system is still reacting to the score -- not the details, but the driving, unmodulated, remorseless aggressiveness (not without loveliness) of its sounds. I'm still bombarded with visions (almost hallucinatios) of the MCB dancers as they dart on an off-stage, whirl around in both directions, swing, stomp, jump, do aerobics, rise up, fall down, and on and on. All with very little modulation in intensity or speed. No andante; no adagio. Just a very short winding down at the end. And the whole thing goes on for 40 minutes. ("Please stop. No, don't stop.")

I've never experienced anything like this in a dance performance . Not even other Tharp. It was exhilerating, but extremely exhausting.

As I gear up for 2 more performances, I need some helps.

How do you respond to this ballet? (And which company/dancers have you seen doing it?)

Can this be the most difficult ballet for dancers ever made? (Certainly I've never seen so many or faster turns -- in both directions.)

What should I be looking for in order to get the most out of it and to find a way to organize my thoughts and feelings?

Thanks in advance ....

#2 SanderO

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 07:00 AM

I enjoyed Upper Room this fall at the ABT Gala... my first and only viewing of the piece.

It was terribly exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. I must admit the Philip Glass score drives me crazy... It makes me think of the movie Koyaniscatzi (can't remember the spelling) which was about the maddening chaotic insanity of our culture. Upper Room's score is much like that... and some of the choreography evokes this same level of beauty and chaos in the world.

Having said that the piece seemed a bit long for me and I feel it would have worked done in a shorter version. And it seems like the Glass score could be shortened. But the length amplifies one's response. I felt relieved that the piece ended... like crossing the finish line of a distance run. I never felt this with any other ballet I have seen... regardless of how athletic the dancing was.

I will see it performed again to see if it can have the same effect on me knowing what is coming. This type of re-viewing a dance is a deep joy in ballet because all the nuance emerges with different casts etc. even tempi..

Do post about your reactions on subsequent viewing. I am curious how it changes for you.

#3 Natalia

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 08:00 AM

I've admired the sexy, pulsating power of 'In the Upper Room' ever since I first saw it in the late-1980s made-for-TV version by Tharp's troupe (with guests from NYCB and ABT). After that viewing, I had-had-had to run to the store to buy the music. At the time, the only existing CD of the Glass score was incomplete, with only 5 of 7 movements, among them the intoxicating final movement. I wore-out that CD with multiple playings! If I ever felt 'the blues,' the final movement of 'In the Upper Room' would re-energize me, just by listening & imagining the choreography!

I have since seen the ballet 'live' by ABT and Washignton Ballet -- an even more exhilarating experience than was the filmed version. ABT's Stella Abrera was particularly memorable...as if she were born to dance her role.

Which brings me to...

Is Twyla Tharp running a "fire sale" on her choreography of this piece or...has 'In the Upper Room' suddenly become all-the-rage among company directors starved for cutting-edge (yet audience-friendly) new choreography? In just the span of four or five months we have performances of the ballet at ABT, Wash Ballet (premiere), Miami City Ballet(premiere), Pennsylvania Ballet (premiere) and the Bolshoi Ballet (premiere)!!?? Add to that next season's outing at Pacific NW Ballet (premiere)? I seem to have read about other troupes having just acquired the ballet but can't name.

What is it with the sudden craze for acquiring 'In the Upper Room'? Why NOW? It's been around for 20 years, yet everyone seems to be trying to acquire it now.

#4 papeetepatrick

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 08:42 AM

Philip Glass is a kind of Pop that choreographers have frequently been attracted to. You have to either have a taste for it, which a fair number do, or at least be able to stand it. I saw 'Koyaanisqatsi' too, it's inevitable that this sort of thing would have emerged fully during the Reagan years, whether Glass or someone else.

#5 beck_hen

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 09:32 AM

I think the word we're looking for to describe it is "cathartic." (Of course, I can experience catharsis from a great Giselle or Swan Lake, but of quite a different kind.) I think Natalia's point about the intensity of live performance is important. The stage magic of story ballets can look dated and artificial compared to the special effects in movies, but this piece's effect could not be supplanted in that way.

At one point I thought Tharp was trying to kill the dancers. She stretched the ballet form close to the breaking point (I find hers the definitive statement on this, and could skip a lot of Forsythe works as a result), but the mood of the piece is ultimately optimistic and triumphant. She matched and commented on the excess of the music. I've been less happy with works to Glass by other choreographers; they just weren't as clever.

I'm a bit surprised so many companies are taking it on, since even ABT's second cast struggled with it. The first cast was wonderful. Ethan Stiefel was the best I've ever seen him.

#6 Natalia

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 09:59 AM

...even ABT's second cast struggled with it....


...and so did Washington Ballet recently, IMO, with exception of Luis Torres and Sona Kharatian. However, audiences who are new to the ballet (and thus cannot compare to the 1980s ABT casts or the Murphy/Abrera cast this season) can't help but ooh & aahh just by the sheer punch & athleticism of the work. Anybody who survives to the end of the ballet seems to get a standing ovation, it seems!

Maybe that's the rub - this is the ballet that guarantees a standing-o audience, whether or not it is well performed.

I'm dying to see how the Bolshoi Ballet fares with it. I can only imagine the likes of petite Osipova and Vasiliev as the 'classicals'...or perhaps long-and-lean Alexandrova and Zakharova as the 'moderns'? We'll soon find out about it. Premiere is in a day or two.

#7 bart

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 10:22 AM

Maybe that's the rub - this is the ballet that guarantees a standing-o audience, whether or not it is well performed.

This is one of the frustrations -- how do you evaluate the performances. Comparing them to what? To those of us with slow eyes and a more limited frame of reference, everything happens so fast ... :lol:

The Miami dancers were great in my book. They seemed more comfortable with the contemporary ("stomper") parts done in running shoes. The team of Principal Solist Jeremy Cox, 2nd-year corpsman Alex Wong, and first year apprentice (!!) Daniel Baker were jazzy, idiomatic, fluid, and unflagging -- though Wong had a brief and partial fall towards the end. (This may show that youth has advantages in this even beyond experience.)

That Jennifer Kronenberg was able to dance a stomper role after having done the pas de deux in Agon AND in Faun was beyond my comprehension. Each role so different -- each performance completely focused and embedded in the style demanded by the role.

The more classical dancing (women on pointe) was the fastest I've ever seen. 2 lovely Latin-American-trained ballerinas handled every movement well, but seemed to be speaking another language.

The classical men were incredible turners -- multiple pirouettes to the right, followed almost immediately by the same turns to the left -- and remained classical dancers (port de bras, extended leg) right to the end.

Which parts did Abrera and Murphy dance? Stiefels?

And -- may I ask once more my question: Is this the most difficult ballet ever? Or just the most exhausting?

#8 Haglund's

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 10:29 AM

Ethan Stiefel was the best I've ever seen him.

Yup. He is definitely the team leader when he's in this cast, and does a great job of keeping everyone's energy going when they must be so exhausted. Stiefel was out this fall with an injury, and Hallberg did a fantastic job. But the Stiefel element really adds to the overall excitement.

Have to agree that the 2nd cast struggled a bit this year, but only in comparison to the first cast of Murphy & Abrera & Hallberg. But I think ANY cast would look decaffeinated when compared to the first cast, who IMO danced like a bunch of crazy people.

#9 Natalia

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 10:44 AM

[Which parts did Abrera and Murphy dance?


They were the side-by-side principal "stompers" who opened & closed the ballet. Abrera, especially, had the wavy back-and-forth head motions down pat!

#10 beck_hen

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 11:18 AM

This is one of the frustrations -- how do you evaluate the performances. Comparing them to what? To those of us with slow eyes and a more limited frame of reference, everything happens so fast ... :lol:

I feel like the ballet is a contest between the choreographer and the dancers. There should be no doubts or fudging. They need to assert mastery. If you question what's happening at all, they're not doing it right. On the other hand, it's not that the piece can or should be 100% clean, given the element of risk and excitement in the choreography. Bart, you're an old NYCB fan, I think? As in that company's style and repertoire, there is somehow a distinction between good messy and bad messy, between pushing the envelope and barely keeping up. But really comparing casts was the only means for me to articulate these distinctions at all...

The more classical dancing (women on pointe) was the fastest I've ever seen. 2 lovely Latin-American-trained ballerinas handled every movement well, but seemed to be speaking another language.

The classical men were incredible turners -- multiple pirouettes to the right, followed almost immediately by the same turns to the left -- and remained classical dancers (port de bras, extended leg) right to the end.

The contrast between the stompers and the classical dancers matters, but the latter shouldn't be too classical. I'm looking for crisp, all-out, uninflected. Herrera and Dvorovenko were both able to leave their usual styles behind and achieve this, and I also saw it from Yuriko Kajiya.

#11 carbro

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 03:47 PM

[H]ow do you evaluate the performances. Comparing them to what? To those of us with slow eyes and a more limited frame of reference, everything happens so fast ... :lol:

I think with a lot of Tharp, we're not really supposed to see everything. She allows us to zero in (or not) on one dancer or couple, while peripherally taking in a feel of what goes on around them. I've seen Upper Room maybe seven or eight times, and I still don't know what the heck is going on all over the stage! She's used the same technique in Push Comes to Shove and Deuce Coupe II, to cite just two that spring to mind, where moments of near chaos resolve to some kind of clean order.

As to the Glass score, I think it serves the ballet -- and vice versa -- brilliantly (even though it was born first), but I can't imagine choosing it solely for musical enjoyment.

#12 sandik

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 05:15 PM

Oh, this is one of my favorite works, and I'm very pleased that it's coming to Seattle next year. In general, Tharp's work is dense and exhilarating, intensely musical, and full of hidden surprises, off-beat references, complicated structure and powerful kinesthetic moments. I think Carbro puts a finger right on it above -- we're not necessarily supposed to see everything on a first (or sometimes a twentyfirst!) viewing. (I think that she's, if not directly influenced, then walking in the same pathway as Merce Cunningham in this) There are several layers involved in most of it, as well multiple focal points on stage and a tricky combination of complicated choreographic structures and a loose-jointed movement vocabulary.

(can you tell I like it?)

For me, Upper Room is the culmination of her work with ABT, and really shows where she makes connections between classical and modern dance techniques, vocabularies and conventions. The stage picture certainly enhances the edgy, aggressive aspects of the work, but even without the actual smoke and metaphoric mirrors, it is just a stunner.

Having said that, I don't think it's the hardest (most physically challenging) dance in her repertory -- of the stuff I've seen, I think I'd vote for Surfer at the River Styx (another piece with a driving, percussion heavy score, this time by Donald Knaack) -- I was just gobsmacked.

On the other topic (current 'shopping' patterns in the Tharp rep), I've certainly noticed that particular works seem to be quite popular -- whether this is a function of the work itself and what the company hopes to achieve with it, or is instead a result of what the Tharp organization is interested in selling at the time is beyond my knowledge. Their website has a pretty thorough list of who's doing what, and this is what I found there.

Nine Sinatra Songs and/or Sinatra is in the rep of 21 companies (since March 2004).
In the Upper Room is performed by 9 companies (since March 2005)
The Golden Section/Suite from Catherine Wheel (another intense Tharp ensemble work) 4 companies (November 2006)

It's pretty clear that Sinatra is a very, very popular work, for many reasons. I find it interesting, though, that it has been staged so widely in the last few years when other pieces of hers that are similar (popular music, social dance references, medium/small cast) have not had anywhere near the exposure. If part of the desire of the organization is to get the work into active repertories, spread the awareness of Tharp as a choreographer, and keep the dances alive, they might want to consider more diversification. But that's just my opinion.

From the Tharp website

Tharp rep in current performance

Nine Sinatra Songs/Sinatra Suite

2008

February:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Nevada Ballet, NV.

April:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Ballet West, Salt Lake City, UT.

2007

March:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Tulsa Ballet
Nine Sinatra Songs: Sacramento Ballet
Sinatra Suite: Friends University, Wichita,KS

June:
Nine Sinatra Songs: NBA Ballet Co., Japan

September:
Nine Sinatra Songs: North Carolina Dance Theatre, Charlotte, NC.

2006

February:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle, WA.

March:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Colorado Ballet
Nine Sinatra Songs: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

June:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Birmingham Royal Ballet

October:
Sinatra Suite: American Ballet Theatre

November:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Louisville Ballet
Sinatra Suite: Harvard Dance

2005

February:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Pennsylvania Ballet
Nine Sinatra Songs: Ballet British Columbia
Sinatra Suite: Ballet Arizona
Sinatra Suite: Virginia Ballet Theatre

March:
Sinatra Suite: The Joyce by Aspen/Santa Fe Dance Company

September:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Kansas City Ballet will appear at the Joyce Downtown Festival in New York City

November:
Nine Sinatra Songs: Washington Ballet at The Kennedy Center.

2004

March
Nine Sinatra Songs: Miami City Ballet

May
Nine Sinatra Songs: Kansas City Ballet

July
Nine Sinatra Songs: Ballet Argentino in Buenos Aires
Sinatra Suite: Aspen/Santa Fe


In the Upper Room

2008

November:
In the Upper Room: National Ballet of Canada

2007

January:
In the Upper Room: Miami City Ballet, Miami, FL

February:
In the Upper Room: Bolshoi Ballet

April:
In the Upper Room: Pennsylvania Ballet, PA.

November:
In the Upper Room: Louisville Ballet
In the Upper Room: Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle, WA

2006

October:
In the Upper Room: Washington Ballet
In the Upper Room: American Ballet Theatre

2005

March:
In the Upper Room: Birmingham Royal Ballet

October:
In the Upper Room: American Ballet Theatre


Catherine Wheel/The Golden Section

2007

February:
The Golden Section: Ballet Austin, Austin, TX.

2006

May:
The Catherine Wheel Suite: Kansas City Ballet

September:
The Golden Section: Miami City Ballet
The Catherine Wheel Suite/ The Golden Section: Kansas City Ballet/Joyce Soho

November:
The Golden Section: Alvin Ailey Company

Sorry for the lengthy post -- this has been of interest to me for awhile now.

#13 bart

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Posted 20 January 2007 - 09:34 PM

Thanks, sandik, for that list. It certainly seems to be "A Tharp in Every Theater" nowadays.

I think with a lot of Tharp, we're not really supposed to see everything. She allows us to zero in (or not) on one dancer or couple, while peripherally taking in a feel of what goes on around them.

It's a consolation to hear that. Thanks, carbro.

I've just returned from my second performance. My first view was from the back of the house: 1st row of Loge. This one, however, was from seats up front that almost hang over the stage. Closer seats help you focus on details. I noticed so many this evening that I wasn't sure about last night. For instance, one of the classical males (stage left) drops out of the group for a while and does extended, graceful, introspective arabesques and slow multiple pirouettes while the others continue to leap and whirl. Similarly, the solo classical ballerina, dancing with 2 men, pushes them apart to get more space -- twice -- and then does something sillyi and simple, rather like a plie on point.

There's lots of stuff like that which you might or might not see from a distance. For example, the complexity of the blocking and the many near misses as dancers race past one another are much more evident. (Conversely, Agon benefited from being a bit further away.)

I'm beginning to feel more comfortable with the Tharp. Eaching viewing helps you to accumulate detail and fit things into patterns. Even the Glass score is beginning to reveal some of its modulations and lyricism.

As to the difficulty of this ballet: during his curtain-raiser talk, Villella said that it took four weeks to put the ballet together. At the end of the first complete run-through, every one of the dancers fell gasping to the floor and several were in tears (apparently from a combination of exhaustion and exhaltation).

#14 SanderO

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Posted 21 January 2007 - 03:16 AM

It is interesting that he said exhausting and exhilarating, because those were exactly the words I used above... and I was in the audience!

#15 Justdoit

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Posted 21 January 2007 - 08:32 AM

I saw MCB do the Upper Room in Miami last weekend and ABSOLUTELY loved it! The music, action, multiple perspectives and never being able to see all of it and I saw it 3 times too. The idea that there is another Tharp out there that is more challenging than Upper Room is mind-boggling! If you're lucky enough to see the dancers perform it up close, you can see the sweat flying and dripping off of them. I too am now looking for the Glass score to help evoke the memory of the choreography and the overall experience. I might be an Upper Room junkie now.


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