The American Ballet Theatre at the New York City Center on Tuesday, October 24.
I will never forget the sold-out performance of Oroonoko I saw in a small black-box theater. It was a new play, based on Aphra Behn’s seventeenth-century novel and produced by a revered theater company, and I had been excited to see it. My excitement quickly died. The writing was hackneyed and shallow and simplistic—offensively so. Not one character was more than a stereotype, not one plot turn was organic, not one would-be tragic moment earned the emotion it tried to wrench from my tear ducts. I hated the play … and when it was over, everyone around me burst into wild applause and gave it a standing ovation. I have rarely felt so alone at a theatrical performance.
I experienced a similar feeling of alienation of the conclusion of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room Tuesday night. Set to Philip Glass’ relentless minimalism, the cluttered, graceless choreography bored and annoyed me. I was relieved when the work finally ended and mystified that seemingly everyone around me loved it.
I’m sure those numerous fans of the work consider the choreography eclectic, but in my eyes, Tharp’s hodgepodge of ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and god knows what else is simply a clumsy hash: everything including the kitchen sink. Despite the dancers’ artful versatility, the disparate steps feel tacked together, like a Frankenstein’s monster of movement.
And then there are the costumes, the ugly, ugly costumes. At the start of the work, half of the ballerinas are wearing what look remarkably like painters’ coveralls, which manage to make women with about 2 percent body fat look chubby. They eventually strip down to red leotards, but they wear the same hideous white lace-ups throughout. The men fare no better with baggy, high-waisted pants elasticized at the waist and ankles. I understand the work had its premiere in the 1980s, but this clothing isn’t merely unflattering: It swallows the precision of the dancers’ movements.
Strike three is the smoke effect. Throughout the entire work, some type of smoke is blown onto the stage. By midway through, traces of it had reached the balcony to sting my eyes. I can’t figure out why the stupid haze is necessary in the first place. Perhaps the “upper room” of the title alludes to Pentecost, but that biblical story only mentions “tongues of fire,” not clouds of smog.
In the Upper Room has energy, I’ll grant, but with Glass’ music—ultimately one enormous crescendo—it couldn’t not have some momentum. I appreciate the dancers’ incredible agility (obscured though it is by the ludicrous wardrobe), but I could never get past the silly, contrived choreography.
I don’t have anything against choreography that fuses traditional ballet with more modern styles. For example, Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Tuesday evening’s opening work, is absolutely delightful. Morris uses many of the same hip and arm and head movements as Tharp, but his numbers feel cohesive and coherent—natural and genuine rather than artificial and calculated.
Furthermore, Morris’ contemporary touches help give the charmingly childlike Drink to Me a sense of youth. The music, Virgil Thompson’s quirky piano etudes, also contributes to the mood of the work. Dance is so often so sensual that the sheer innocence of Drink to Me is enchantingly unexpected.
My favorite work of the program, though, was Lar Lubovitch’s Meadow, a rapturously romantic creation. Lubovitch’s lifts are like nothing I’ve ever seen. The men don’t merely raise and lower the women. Held aloft, the women dance in mid-air, floating through their poses, supple and sinuous and inhumanly beautiful. The soloists Tuesday were Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent, and the choreography puts his strength and her incredible flexibility on breathtaking display. Kent bends and arches and curves her body into artful forms, and her feet hardly seem to touch to the ground.
I’m not sure what Lubovitch intended, but to me, Meadow feels like a gentler Rite of Spring: primordial but peaceful, lush rather than stark, concluding not with a woman’s violent sacrificial death but with her ascent into the heavens. I was so caught up in the beauty of the dancing that I didn’t even notice that Kent had been attached to some sort of rigging, so when Gomes lifted her for the last time and she continued to rise beyond his grasp, it was miraculous. And when the lights faded away and the curtain fell, I joined in the ardent applause with all my heart.