Sunday, 7 October 2012

In The Upper Room - Alberta Ballet

Great Masterpieces of the 20th Century
Alberta Ballet
Northern Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton, Alberta
September 21-22, 2012
7:30 pm

This concert makes sense.

The program title though, is oddly generic. It seems to be an appeal to concert hall patrons who might be afraid of words like "modern" or "contemporary," but are very pleased to buy tickets to attend not just regular masterpieces, but great ones. It leaves out the fact that it is so very specific to the United States, and even more specific to New York City, and even still more specific to just two choreographers, George Balanchine and one of his most ardent followers, Twyla Tharp.

It's worth a dive into Tharp's autobiography Push Comes To Shove to understand the chemistry here:
"For all my adoration, or precisely because of my adoration, I saw Balanchine only three times over the years. For a long time I had steadfastly refused to take advantage of offers to be introduced, fearing I would simply burst instantly into tears. However, when I was in Nashville with Misha (Mikhail Baryshnikov) for the taping of The Prodigal Son, it had happened......I turned around and there was Balanchine. I had no time to think; I simply bowed.....then Balanchine bowed, saying he was a great admirer, and I bowed saying, No I was a great admirer..." "Several years later, Balanchine was in the hospital. I went twice.....The second time, he was very I just left what I had brought for him - a Walkman with a favorite cassette of mine, one of Mozart's last works, the Adagio and Rondo in C for Glass Harmonica. After that, I got together with a friend and we made sure that every day from then on there would be a small, but different, flower brought to his room. I read of Balanchine's death when I was flying back from a film location, in a New York Times that had been left on an empty plane seat. For the next year, every morning I went into the studio to work, I could not keep myself from crying. I missed Balanchine terribly--the thought that he would not be making any more dances, that he would not be springing into an incredible late blossoming...that I was now completely alone in the studio. I imagined making a dance to his memory, but the thought was ludicrous. He was embedded in every step I did."

In The Upper Room debuted in 1986, three years after the death of Balanchine. Quintessentially 1980's, the ballet is a fusion of many types of movement; ballet, jazz, modern, tap, boxing, and archery. The original Jennifer Tipton lighting design was used; modern lines and angles creating the illusion of moonlight coming into high-ceilinged, room with floor-to-ceiling windows. And costumes based on the original Norma Kamali design were used as well: combinations of black and white striped baggy pants with red leotards, bare-chested men in jeans and running shoes, and red ballet skirts with red pointe shoes.

Though the heavenly upper room is implied, Tharp refers to her upper room more as an enormous attic, where treasures are stored and may be visited. The dance is often symmetrical or chiral with a great deal of intense, if stoic partnering. Alberta Ballet dancers were mostly able to recreate the tight rhythms built within the movement phrases and at the same time maintain the precise looseness so specific to Tharp's style. From this looseness, the dancers then surprise us with sharp leaps that dissolve into turns that seem so relaxed it's hard to comprehend where the momentum is coming from. The turns and lifts and near-drops are breathtaking, managing to convey a sense of urgency and importance without angst or unnecessary acting. With the driving score of Philip Glass which he wrote for Tharp, the dance is one of a sort of post-postmodernist resplendence.

For Tharp in the 80's, creating dances that utilized all of her own skills (Balanchine ballet, tap, jazz, modern) became a kind of signature for her. In this piece it is notable that on the same stage we see bare feet, pointe shoes and sneakers, which was somewhat radical at the time. In fact she was possibly the first to put shoes back on the barefoot modern dancers. She herself had been choreographing to everything from Bach to Sinatra, making dances for her own company, for film, for Broadway, yet also choreographing for Joffrey, American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet.

Tharp says in her autobiography that In the Upper Room is the only work she has made that no matter where it is performed it gets a standing ovation (the Alberta Ballet performance being no exception). And it does get a fair amount of airplay by ballet companies around the world.

Tharp originally choreographed the piece on her own company. After it received some acclaim, she set it on American Ballet Theatre. At the time, New York Times dance critic Arlene Croce skeptically welcomed it as a definite improvement on Tharp's failures the year prior. In 1987 she wrote, "Unlike Fait Accompli, In the Upper Room will probably last a couple of seasons."  However, if you look today at the ABT schedule, it's on the bill this very weekend, 26 years later.

Alberta Ballet, when commissioning the ballet to be set on them, must have a member of the Twyla Tharp Foundation evaluate and train the company (in this case, Elaine Kudo). They then must spend three intensive weeks in rehearsal. Alberta Ballet doesn't have the typical look of a neo-classical company (the extremely tall and lithe Balanchine dancers we are accustomed to) but the dancers did quite well with the bolder, precisely and purposefully off-balance demands of Balanchine and Tharp. Aside from the dazzling steps and slithers and lifts, there are moments of stillness that must be abrupt and startling. If you had a favorite part, it might be when three male/female couples are dancing in a diagonal row, and after much back and forth in a kind of athletic and playful flirtation of turns, swivels, lifts and dips, the couples finally release themselves into each others arms. Just as instantly, their arms and bodies then repel each other like polar ends of magnets and they stand suspended for a moment, locked in a disconnected embrace as the next dancers materialize from the darkness behind them to take over the building inertia.

Early in the dance, a down spot on the dancers appears when an invisible lamp string is pulled. As the dance builds with entrances fading in and out from the abyss outside the hazy performance space. The dance ends with the angles of light reducing back to that little light, a single dancer jumps up pulls the lamp string, landing on one leg as the last note reverberates and the light goes to blackout. After so much complicated and charged movement, this simple pantomimic gesture becomes sublime.

This program may not have succeeded in reaching a contemporary dance, music and art audience, in part because Alberta Ballet might be more concerned with maintaining their more traditional audience rather than reaching out. In the program notes it states that these Balanchine and Tharp works changed the way we think about dance. Artistic Director Jean Grand-MaƮtre says this:
 "Audiences might think, 'wow, you produced a highly successful Swan Lake, you've made it!' But I think that people should also realize that it takes just as much hard work and sacrifice to do justice to the works of Balanchine and Tharp."
Of course this is a true statement, though the problem with this is clear to a contemporary audience, who, already grasping the complexity, importance and the spectrum of aesthetics in  post-postmodernism will think of a 66-year-old Balanchine ballet to Paul Hindemith (The Four Temperaments) and a 26-year-old Tharp ballet to Philip Glass as decidedly historical, if completely relevent. Alberta Ballet seems in this case to act as an educator, an important role of any regional professional company. But for those of us who see our culture as not even just having recently entered the 21st century, we might feel a disconnect with those who are still afraid of the twentieth.

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