“In the Upper Room” – A brief history of Twyla Tharp’s exhilarating ballet!

Written by Robyn Jutsum

As we enter Women’s History Month, The Ballet Spot is taking Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as inspiration for our Cardio Ballet combos. This contemporary ballet is an athletic, exhilarating, dynamic display of professional prowess, and we’re excited to introduce you to the movements and music that bring the piece to life.

In the Upper Room premiered on August 28th, 1986 with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company at the Murray Theatre at Ravinia in Highland Park, IL. Not only was this an exciting premiere, but it was also a marker for a new era of Tharp’s company. Only two years later, Tharp’s company would disband (only temporarily) and Tharp would jump on board American Ballet Theatre as Artistic Associate.

Commissioned by The Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation, the music was created by Philip Glass specifically for the ballet. On the composition, Philip Glass notes, “The music hints at things, but I tried to leave a lot of space for the dance to happen…In that way, the dancers complete it, fill it in.”

While the elements of lighting, costuming, music, etc all play a role in most if not all ballets, the lighting and costumes, in addition to music, are particularly recognizable in the ballet. The costumes, black and white striped jumpsuits that are eventually removed to reveal different variations of red, were designed by Norma Kamali. Two featured female dancers in the piece don red pointe shoes while other dancers wear white athletic sneakers. The lighting, created by Jennifer Tipton, includes designed layers of shadows, smoke, and spotlights. In fact, in 1991, In the Upper Room was awarded a Lawrence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance, recognizing Twyla Tharp for choreography and Jennifer Tipton for lighting.

The ballet has no plot and is divided into 9 parts clocking in at 39 minutes from start to finish. With a cast of thirteen dancers, the energy that these nine parts exudes almost suggests different gears moving to reveal a full blown machine. There is further categorization within the cast’s footwear. Those in sneakers are labeled “stompers,” and those in pointe shoes are part of the “bomb squad.”

It is clearly an effort of many elements working together that makes this ballet as fierce as it is. The Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation does justice to this marriage of multiple factors working in tandem. It states, “In The Upper Room synthesizes choreography, costumes, music and lighting into a transcendent experience for both audience and performers.” American Ballet Theatre similarly states, “Tharp’s choreography calls for both raw power and extreme grace. Bold kinetic movements blend with Philip Glass’s propelling score, creating a transcendent experience for both audience and dancers.”

Many prominent companies have performed In the Upper Room including ABT, Royal Winnipeg, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Kansas City Ballet, among others stateside and internationally.

To get more insight into the rehearsal process, I encourage you to check out this fantastic insider piece from Dance Magazine that goes behind the scenes at ABT while preparing for In the Upper Room in 2018.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has a beautiful description that takes you through the journey of the piece in its entirety which you can read here.

Want to learn more about Twyla Tharp? Visit our Women’s History Month Instagram Highlight and visit the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s blog for their 10 Things to Know About Twyla Tharp post!

Stay tuned throughout the month of March as we highlight female choreographers and Artistic Directors like Twyla Tharp, Wendy Whelan, Tamara Rojo, Virginia Johnson, and Lauren Lovette, to name just a few. Sign up for our full weekly schedule and learn more about the classes we offer here.

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