When a dance like Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” (1986) — one of the greatest ballets of all time — returns to the stage, it arrives with the weight of history behind it. Ghosts of past performances haunt the theater, performances you’ve seen or haven’t. How did they do it in the ’80s? Was it better then? What’s been lost or gained? What’s changed? A challenge for the viewer (or maybe for a critic, in particular) is to quiet those questions and meet the work in its present, our present. What is it telling us now?
In its current iteration, “In the Upper Room,” which is sharing a program at New York City Center with another Tharp classic, “Nine Sinatra Songs,” from 1982, reads as especially triumphant, if also fragile: a dance about the effort and possibilities of dancing, in the wake of a time when dancing together was nearly impossible. With a cast handpicked by Tharp for this occasion — from the likes of American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company — this latest rendition is not flawless but touching in its fallibility, in the struggle it exposes. Its angel-artist-athletes are human, too. On Wednesday, opening night, the 13 dancers pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion, holding nothing back as they carried the ballet along its inexorable course, wave upon wave of energy rolling in.
In describing “Upper Room,” which cascades forward to Philip Glass’s nine-part score, it’s tempting to reach for terms like “marathon” or “test of endurance.” Yet somehow these fall short, maybe because they suggest a blunt forging ahead, when in fact the choreography demands as much softness and restraint, one of its sublime tensions.
This ease and equanimity first surfaces in the opening duet for the guardian-like figures whose twoness frames the dance, the willowy Kaitlyn Gilliland and Stephanie Petersen. (Tharp calls them “the stompers.”) We see it in their loose shimmying atop a wide-legged stance, and in grape-vining footwork that reflects the gentle oscillations of the music, made airier by their white sneakers and Norma Kamali’s billowy, striped pajamas.
Soon the spunkiness of another twosome — Jeanette Delgado and Jada German, in ruby red socks and pointe shoes — cuts through the action, fortified by the assured presence and razor-sharp precision of Cassandra Trenary, who looks right at home in her regal role. More than once, Trenary presses her arms outward to push aside two of her partners, Daniel Ulbricht and Julian MacKay, a gesture of defiance that leaves her squarely at the center of our focus. At times, plunging into a penché or rotating in an arabesque, she seems like the prototypical ballerina against which more skewed, less classical movement defines itself.
“Upper Room” would not be itself without fog — lots of fog — through which the dancers appear and disappear, those ceaseless waves. It delivers the dancers into our field of vision and envelops them back out. This time around, I was struck by the dance’s images of receding and retreat, like its preponderance of running backward, little jaunts into the unknown.
To not know where you’re going and still be grounded, centered: Tharp ups the ante on this task in the final, climactic section, when she introduces, for the women in sneakers, side-to-side shakes of the head. As their arms clear the space in front of them, their heads seem to say, “No, we can’t go on!” But they do go on — and on — as do their indefatigable fellow dancers. At this peak of exertion and abandon (one dancer, sprinting out from the mist, just barely dodges the swipe of another’s foot), some are even smiling.
Compared with the structural complexity of “Upper Room,” its continuous comings and goings, “Sinatra Songs” is more straightforward, yet the dancers approach it with no less daring. A series of romantic duets to Frank Sinatra hits, coalescing around the soaring “My Way,” it portrays relationships at varying levels of heat: contented, flirty, sultry, angry. Packed with vertiginous lifts and knotty exchanges, for women in flowing dresses (and wigs) and men in formal suits, the partnering dazzles.
In an interview about the program, Tharp spoke about her thinking behind the show order. “Upper Room,” exhilarating as it is, typically closes a show, but she decided to open with its difficulty and close with the intimacy of “Sinatra Songs,” indicating a way forward as the pandemic subsides. Alas, despite its extraordinary performances — especially from Delgado and Ulbricht, perfect matches for each other’s power, and the glamorous Jacquelin Harris and James Gilmer of the Ailey company — “Sinatra Songs” felt more like a nostalgic embrace of the past, of familiar patterns and pleasures, than like a hopeful path forward. The future is more uncertain.
In the Upper Room and Nine Sinatra Songs
Through Sunday at New York City Center, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org.