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Twlya Tharp: “In the Upper Room” & “Nine Sinatra Songs”

When Twyla Tharp’s ballets are good, they are great: works of art and entertainment. 

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A scene from Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Benjamin Miller)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

When Twyla Tharp’s ballets are good, they are great: works of art and entertainment.  Such are the two major works she revived for her too short season at the New York City Center:  In the Upper Room and Nine Sinatra Songs.

The former, a nine-part work of unrelenting vigor to an equally unrelenting score by Philip Glass, is well known for its prison-chic Norma Kamali costumes—black-striped white jumpsuits that wittily morph into vibrant red—and for its daring combination of ballet (including point shoes) and modern dance gymnastics (in running shoes) and its turn-on-a-dime dynamics, all performed in a constant, smoky haze that made entrances and exits spooky and exciting.

In the Upper Room begins with two women, Kaitlyn Gilliland and Stephanie Petersen treading in place, their arms jabbing, to Glass’ throbbing rhythms. Three men (Richard Villaverde, Lloyd Knight and Reed Tankersley) whirl about them.

As the sections progress, both the music and the choreography are amplified, the one reflecting and commenting on the other.

The cast is divided into the ballet contingent and the goofier modern dancers, both groups nonetheless grounded in classical ballet as Tharp tosses in air turns, quicksilver lifts, high, twisty jumps and her famous jogging steps as well as her copyrighted shoulder shimmies.

A scene from Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Benjamin Miller)

The Kamali costumes also morph from full-length striped black & white jumpsuits to shorty versions for the women on point and red pants for some of the men.  Three men— Villaverde, Knight and Tankersley—wind up bare-chested in Section VII, their sweat becoming part of their costumes as they showed off spiffy balletic steps until Section VIII when they were joined by women for some showy partnering and close-up schmoozing.

Tharp also repeats themes from section to section as if to remind us of her good ideas while new movements thread themselves into the old.  The final section reprises virtually all the movements with this incredible cast, who should be too exhausted to move, smilingly giving their all for each other and the audience.

In the Upper Room is a totally up work, even the few intense, slower passages beam with warmth.

Nine Sinatra Songs is moodier and more elegant, helped by Oscar de la Renta’s beautiful formal wear and gowns.  Clothing always looks great on dancers’ bodies and this cast made them all look like second skins that moved graciously in Tharp’s movements.  Adding to the ambiance was Santo Loquasto’s set:  a large, rotating disco ball and a shiny back curtain plus that ever-present fog.

Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer opened with a smooth, romantic duet to “Softly As I Leave You,” with just enough young love vibes to picture these two as keepers.  More world weary was “Strangers in the Night” danced by Marzia Memoli and Villaverde who seemed to be going through the motions of romance.

A scene from Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs” at New York City Center (Photo credit: Christopher Duggan)

All wasn’t dreamy romance.  “Somethin’ Stupid” showed off the comic skills of Daisy Jacobson and Tankersley who were terrific in their slapstick interactions.

In “My Way,” three couples glided about, did whirling lifts and dramatic drops to the ground.  When “My Way” was repeated as the finale, all the couples filled the stage in reprises of their duets, finally coalescing into a stage full of extraordinary dancers whose back stories Tharp so expertly revealed.

A great deal has been made of Tharp’s decision to open this program with the audaciously vigorous In the Upper Room rather than the more sedate Nine Sinatra Songs.  I believe this choice was made more to give the audience time to get their heart rates down rather than giving the dancers time to recover!

Both works were lit by the legendary Jennifer Tipton.  She caught the glee of Upper Room and every shade of romance so eloquently portrayed in Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs.

This was a troupe of mature dancers who knew how to wring every nuance out of these two Twyla Tharp classics.

Twyla Tharp (October 19-23, 2022)

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org

Running time: 95 minutes including one intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (466 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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