Twyla Tharp
New York City Center
New York, New York

October 22, 2022
In the Upper Room, Nine Sinatra Songs

Jerry Hochman

Twyla Tharp’s triumphant ballet In the Upper Room has been presented many times in the past by her own company, Twyla Tharp Dance (which premiered it in 1986), by American Ballet Theatre (first in December 1988 in California and five months later in New York), and by numerous other ballet companies worldwide. It’s been deemed a masterpiece by everyone I’m aware of who’s commented on it, including me.

Last week, Tharp brought it back, on a program with Nine Sinatra Songs, a brilliant Tharp piece that’s been around the block a few times also, in a week-long series of six performances at City Center. I saw it Saturday evening.

In summary, this was an Event for which the usual superlatives (magnificent, splendid, glorious, even epic) are insufficient. It was all of these and more: a program, including the dancers’ performances, that happens once in a lifetime if you’re lucky, but that one can only hope will return yet again if for no other reason than to re-experience the euphoria.

I’ll discuss the two pieces in performance order (and with a little meandering along the way).

In the Upper Room

That In the Upper Room (hereafter at times “ITUR”) is a masterpiece isn’t really debatable. I saw ITUR many times after it first appeared in ABT’s New York 1989 repertory long before I first reviewed it, the earliest of which (that I have a present record of) was in 2011. After favorably acknowledging several earlier Tharp pieces I’d seen (Deuce Coupe and As Time Goes By with the Joffrey Ballet, and Push Comes to Shove with ABT), I wrote: “But In the Upper Room is in another galaxy. It is non-stop nearly incorporeal bodies in space moving in and out of clouds in heaven’s ante-room, and one of those rare plotless pieces that looks better and choreographically richer upon repeat viewings.”

It still does, and that’s still the way I’d describe it now – only yet more emphatically. And whether one sees it as I do as taking place in some heavenly ante-room, or in heaven itself, or “just” in the clouds, or in no particular fog-enshrouded venue makes no difference.

Twyla Tharp dancers in “In the Upper Room”
Rehearsal photo by Benjamin Miller

So why bring back now? Why not wait until ABT recycles it when it needs a reliable masterpiece crowd-pleaser?

There are several reasons:

First, a masterpiece is a masterpiece and one that’s timeless, as most are by definition, is welcome anytime. New York City Ballet wouldn’t survive without its legacy ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and classical ballet companies wouldn’t survive without the 100+ year old classic ballets they routinely present, whether restaged or not.

Second, this City Center audience isn’t a Lincoln Center audience. They may not have seen these pieces previously, or saw them so long ago that memories need rekindling.

Third, and perhaps most important, Tharp picked her own dancers for this engagement, thereby avoiding being assigned company members who might not have been best for the role, or dealing with artistic directors who might insist on casting their favorites.

Twyla Tharp dancers in “In the Upper Room”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

For whatever reason, however, the results for this engagement were astonishing. I can’t say that the ITUR performance I saw on Saturday was the best I’ve ever seen, since I’ve seen so many over the years that were memorably executed. But this one was different. For one, in general terms, the male dancers that Tharp selected, as a group, were superior to those I’ve seen as a group from ABT (the only other company I’ve seen perform In the Upper Room). This makes a huge difference in the balance of the piece. That doesn’t mean that the ballerinas Tharp selected were deficient – overall they were a superb group as well.

Twyla Tharp dancers in “In the Upper Room”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

The piece itself is indescribable; it must be seen. Suffice it to say that ITUR is divided into nine sections, but one follows another with little space in between (ABT audiences know by now not to applaud between sections; this City Center audience didn’t – although Saturday’s audience was sufficiently familiar with it to start applauding moments before the iconic final image appeared). Its cast includes 7 women and 6 men who shuffle through each of the sections, emerge from the upstage cloud shroud individually, in pairs, or in groups as each segment progresses, and in the process execute an astonishing assortment of movement, much of which might not normally be considered stereotypical ballet – all perfectly attuned to the increasingly pulsing and equally monumental Philip Glass score. ITUR has no discernable theme or context beyond, perhaps (and at most), that the dancers are non-conforming angels (or acrobats) of God, or hyperactive souls awaiting heavenly admittance, but ultimately that’s irrelevant. And like most ballet masterpieces, here Tharp includes brief motifs that appear and that later unexpectedly, and masterfully, reappear.

While watching this performance, it seemed to me that Tharp made some modifications to the piece since I last saw it. If that’s not just my imagination, it may have been the product of a constant process of revision, but, more likely, it was a consequence of the smaller City Center stage compressing the action. Accordingly, the stage looked busier than I recall, and certain recalled images either didn’t appear or were hidden from my view by other moving bodies. But the smaller stage provided benefits also: the action seemed somehow to be even more pervasive and powerful, and undeniably not only felt closer to the audience, but actually was. Be that as it may, any alteration that might have been made doesn’t matter either: In the Upper Room is heart-pounding, emotionally uplifting, kinetically energizing dance.

Twyla Tharp dancers in “In the Upper Room”
Rehearsal photo by Benjamin Miller

Each of the Tharp-picked ITUR dancers deserves recognition and accolades. They were, in order of appearance (and with some parenthetical comments added with respect to dancers I’ve previously seen): Kaitlyn Gilliland (who several years ago was ubiquitous on NYC stages in performances by a variety of companies, but who I hadn’t seen on stage in years and was pleased to see perform again), Stephanie Petersen (formerly with ABT, who I saw in its most recent ITUR presentation), Richard Villaverde, Lloyd Knight (an electrifying dancer with Martha Graham Company), Reed Tankersley, Jeanette Delgado (a former Miami City Ballet Principal who was impressive in pieces I saw while she danced with that company), Jada German, Daniel Ulbricht (no stranger to NYC audiences, who I once described as a combination soaring eagle in flight and bowling ball thrown for a strike), Benjamin Freemantle, Julian MacKay (last seen here in a program presented by Lauren Lovette, and before that as Skylar Brandt’s partner in a highly publicized televised Russian ballet contest), Cassandra Trenary (a recently promoted ABT Principal, and about whom more will be written below), Daisy Jacobson (a member of L.A. Dance Project who excelled during that company’s visit to NYC last spring), and Marzia Memoli.

Notwithstanding the overall performing excellence, some were more equal than others. Trenary here was a force of nature; a divine presence who dominated (benevolently) the scenes she was in. Ulbricht, who easily kept up with his younger colleagues, looked like he was having the time of his life. (In my recent NYCB season review, I wrote that Ulbricht, in Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, danced not only like he won’t be ready to retire anytime soon, but that he shouldn’t. His execution in ITUR cements that observation.) And I’ll not soon forget Knight, who, in the piece’s final segment and unlike his cast colleagues, smiled noticeably – not because a smile was built into the role, but, to my eye, because he knew he’d successfully climbed yet another mountain.

Twyla Tharp dancers in “In the Upper Room”
Rehearsal photo by Benjamin Miller

[Forgive a lengthy look back. The ABT programs referenced in the review I mention above were from November 11 and 12, 2011, and included some observations that, if nothing else, provide further evidence that you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: “…. the most astonishing pair of dancers in what was a superb performance by all involved were Nicole Graniero and Skylar Brandt. As the sprites in red toe shoes who dance virtually in tandem throughout the piece, the two of them lit up the stage wherever and whenever they were on it – which seemed to be everywhere all the time…..Ms. Brandt was just elevated to the corps last year (she was an apprentice before that). Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised …. but seeing someone so young dance with such a combination of speed, control, and precision was breathtaking.” And also: “Sarah Lane is in a groove. Based on her performance in this piece (as the ‘lead’ girl in red toe shoes) and in Seven Sonatas, which preceded it in the evening’s program, Ms. Lane is dancing stronger than ever, and with an increasing display of self-assurance. [As of this writing, there is one uncast Juliet for ABT’s spring season at the Met (and at least one other that should be reconsidered). The role should be hers.]” Again, this was in 2011. Brandt is now an ABT Principal; and Lane, who became an ABT Principal, never was given the opportunity she and ABT audiences deserved.

And as long as I’m looking back, in that same review I discussed what then was a new piece by Demis Volpe: Private Light. The dance is justifiably forgettable, but it was my introduction to a new corps dancer I’d not previously seen named Cassandra Trenary, who, I wrote at the time, “managed to execute Mr. Volpi’s inventive but awkward-looking choreography superbly, maintaining her dignity despite being tossed around like a toy. A promising performance, and a dancer to watch.” She still is.]

Nine Sinatra Songs

I thought I’d seen Nine Sinatra Songs previously. As I quickly discovered, I hadn’t. The dance premiered with Tharp’s company in 1982 and with ABT in 1990, but the piece I’d recalled seeing was an earlier ABT incarnation, Sinatra Suite, with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo, from 1983 (and which I saw thereafter with several other pairings). As much as I enjoyed Sinatra Suite and recall it well, Nine Sinatra Songs is a different choreographic animal, and a revelation. Another one.

The piece consists of nine sections – the first three performed by couples, and then a fourth with the prior three couples combined; then four more paired segments, and a final section that brings all the seven couples together – all choreographed to eight iconic songs sung by Frank Sinatra (one, “My Way” appears twice: as recorded both early and late in Sinatra’s career).

Kaitlyn Gilliland and Lloyd Knight
in curtain call from
Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Most of the costumes for the ballerinas are elegant-looking dresses (costumes were designed by Oscar de la Renta), with dark suits for the men. Consequently, a lot of Tharp’s choreography here looks ballroom. But Nine Sinatra Songs is way more than that. Each of the dances, which blend together seamlessly (actually, they slightly overlap) is as idiosyncratic as each of the songs to which they’re choreographed, but the overall impression is not so much a capture of and exploration of differences in relationships, or an evolution of relationships (as might be gleaned from Sinatra Suite). Rather, each segment (including the few that appear negative or comic) is a celebration of the complexity of relationships, of Sinatra’s vocal legacy, of her dancers’ capabilities beyond executing steps, and of love itself. While the choreography may not look nearly as complex as in In the Upper Room, choreographic complexity isn’t the point here. Universality, relationship personality, and uplifting idealization is. That it’s also somewhat of a trip down memory lane is overwhelmed by the meaningfulness that Tharp’s choreography grafts onto it. And as performed by Tharp’s chosen dancers, Nine Sinatra Songs is in no way as hackneyed as my descriptive terminology might make it appear; rather, collectively, it’s an enchantment that moves the heart.

Jeanette Delgado and Daniel Ulbricht
in Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

I’ll highlight a few of the dances, but each was delivered memorably.

The tenor is set from the outset. “Softly As I Leave You,” danced by Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer (members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and both of whom I saw in City Center’s Twyla Now! program last year) is as gorgeous and exhilarating a duet as any I’ve seen. Gilmer’s role was primarily to partner, which he did unobtrusively and effortlessly. I saw Gilmer in a City Center Fall for Dance program only weeks ago, and here he looked almost unrecognizably sophisticated. Harris carried the piece’s emotional component in addition to its choreographic requirements, and did so with gushing flourish, overflowing with the giddy passion that underlies Sinatra’s song (“…,Dooby-dooby-doo, Doo-doo-doo-di-dah Dah-dah-dah-dah-dee-ee-yah-yah-yah.”) but in the process communicating genuine emotion rather than saccharin artificiality.

Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer
in Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Two dances later, following the lush enhancement to “Strangers in the Night” by Memoli and Villaverdi (both dancers are members of Martha Graham Dance Company), Trenary brought the house down with her execution in “One for My Baby.” Partnered by the brilliantly besotted Freemantle (formerly a Principal with San Francisco Ballet), Trenary’s character could take love or leave it. Here, she left it, after exhibiting her self-sovereignty throughout the course of the piece. Of course this was Tharp’s choreography, but being a free spirit / independent woman seems part of Trenary’s genetic material, and no one does sassy as credibly as Cassie, and here she was not only believable, but flawless in her execution and timing. Hers was an uproariously cheeky performance that rocked the theater.

Stephanie Petersen and Julian Mackay
in Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

The remaining performances were merely different shades of exceptional. Jacobson and Tankersley (a former lead performer with Cirque du Soleil who has appeared in previous Tharp productions) breezed through “Somethin’ Stupid,” after which Gilliland and Knight illuminated “All the Way” and Petersen and MacKay romped through “Forget Domani.” Delgado and Ulbricht ended the couples’ dances, peppering “That’s Life” with seemingly spontaneous exuberance, all the while communicating that “that’s life” is not its culmination, but its beginning. And per Tharp’s exceptional choreography and staging, the seven-couple conclusion to Sinatra’s second and more mature iteration of “My Way” oozed wondrous good-feeling that penetrated through the song’s words, doused that with not a little sentimentality, and inflamed it all with the comforting and transporting memory of putting one’s head on another’s shoulder, albeit in different ways and at different times during the course of one’s life – appropriate for a song written by Paul Anka.

At the same time, Nine Sinatra Songs knocks the stuffing out of you and delivers unmitigated joy. That’s life. That’s Tharp.

Final curtain call for the cast
of Twyla Tharp at City Center
Photo by Christopher Duggan

In the context of excerpts from several interviews with participating dancers that appear in the program’s Playbill, Jacobson perfectly observed and summarized the relationship between Tharp and an audience: “It’s really inspiring, how she [Tharp] thinks about the audience watching her dances…..It’s not performing for them or showing off for them, it’s letting them feel like they’re dancing too.” Indeed.

Although there are more companies to come and more performances to see before 2022 ends, this program was a highlight of this, or any other, year. Thanks, Twyla.