IN REVIEW: With a single program, the Kansas City Ballet has altered the tone of the performing arts in our community
Four women far upstage in pajama-like outfits skip in place, their limbs flying in precisely crafted, whimsical calisthenics. Downstage, a ballerina in red pointe shoes is dancing, now two ballerinas, and now with men, in a juxtaposition of classical and contemporary styles that appears all the more startling because of the ensemble’s placement in front of the “aerobics class” upstage. They’ve all emerged from a mysterious wall of mist, which obscures them until they walk downstage into Jennifer Tipton’s dazzlingly complex lighting design (here lovingly, masterfully recreated by Trad A Burns), which at every single moment has each dancer lit in a specific and individualistic way. Meanwhile, the pulsating minimalist music of Philip Glass drives the dancers forward, its continuous, incremental shifts of mood, tempo, and orchestration impacting the evolving choreography in subtle ways. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room.
It is, quite simply, one of the towering masterpieces of 20th-century American art, from any genre: The fact that it is so difficult to see makes us grateful, on the one hand, that the Kansas City Ballet has made it accessible on its Spring Program (which runs through May 19th at the Kauffman Center). It also makes us wonder whether contemporary dance has, through its very exclusivity, hindered its own capacity for popular appeal, not to mention growth. Even well-traveled balletomanes find it difficult to see a work like Upper Room, and as much as one grasps the down-side of watching dance on video, choreographers today protect their work from diffusion with such vigor that one wonders how these works will survive through our technologically saturated era. (Granted, the one grainy, darkly lit YouTube video of the complete Upper Room I was able to find recently is a ghastly representation of the actual dance, so under those circumstances one can understand the choreographer’s plight.) But that is a subject for another day.
The Kansas City Ballet could probably have performed In the Upper Room before now, but the execution might not have had the polish and vigor that the company can lend it today. Perhaps it was wise to wait, because this fully realized version of Twyla’s early milestone came at an opportune time for Kansas City: We now have a state-of-the-art ballet theater, and the company boasts a strong enough artistic team to combine Tharp’s piece with two equally risky (from a box-office standpoint) contemporary works, one dating from just a year after the Tharp (William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated), the other a new work by Kansas City native David Parsons, which was receiving its world premiere (A Play for Love, a comedy populated by an oddball mix of Shakespearean characters).
Tharp/Parsons/Forsythe stands as a significant moment in the evolution of the performing arts in KC. The program of three obliquely connected works presents a sort of window into what we might expect from contemporary dance during the next generation, both locally and on a national level. And it does so with a level of panache and professionalism that is rare for a medium-sized company.
Twyla (b. 1941) and William (b. 1949) represent to some extent the upheavals that dance was experiencing during the period after the deaths of Balanchine, Tudor, and Ashton in the 1980s, when recalcitrant experimentalism and pop sensibilities that were invading all the arts began to affect dance in major ways. In contrast, David Parsons, who danced with Paul Taylor before forming his own Parsons Dance in the mid-’80s, represents a more recent and less formalistic tradition of dance: His own website cites his sometimes-motto as “What’s wrong with having fun?” At the same time, his artistry was formed not just by Taylor but by the same forces that helped forged the early works of Twyla and William.
In the Middle, which unlike Tharp’s piece has a single lighting cue through its entire duration, is an in-your-face, strangely appealing if harsh look at human interactions (to the extent that they can be expressed in dance). Set to a drivingly metallic, almost industrial-sounding score by Thom Willems and Leslie Stuck, its dance is as much perpetuum mobile as its music. Dancers appear initially in klatches of threes and fours, and occasionally in pairs: They dance a few steps, pause, walk about, dance a few more. William’s movement is ballet-based but consistently fragmented and off-balance, with strange bits sprinkled about that grab the eye: During one contentious pas de deux, several dancers spread around the stage crouch, inscrutably moving one hand back and forth across one knee.
At the center of the action are Taryn Mejia, Emily Mistretta, and tough-guy Liang Fu: But the women find that getting to dance with the stud is not as easy as it’s supposed to be in ballet. At one point he walks around and dismisses a half-dozen other women with an unfriendly shove-gesture: One woman refuses to leave, and stands upstage to watch the action. (Good for her!) The duets are not as loving as we’re used to: In lieu of lifts, we often get assertive tosses. Who are these guys? The final coup is a series of dancers in horizontal patterns forming what appear to be undulating waves. And all this beneath a sprig of metallic “cherries” hung high atop the proscenium. (The work’s title is an expression of the location of the fruit.) And if you are waiting for me to “explain” this all to you, you will wait a long time.
It took a full-length intermission to shift gears from William’s Euro-noise to David’s radically different aesthetic. He knew his work was to be sandwiched between two giants, so he opted to make a comedy. And a delightful romp it is, thanks partly to a pastiche of music by Rossini, Bizet, and others, and to character-delineating costumes by Sylvie Rood. David Glass’ ingenious libretto runs thus: The director of a community theater-style ballet, who doubles as Prospero (Dillon Malinski), has determined to guide the fate of two lovers. Enter the gentlemanly Baptista (Javier Morales) from Taming of the Shrew and his daughters, coy Bianca (Courtney Nitting) and rebellious Katarina (Danielle Bausinger). Both “Kate” and Petruchio (James Kirby Rogers) are haughty and prideful, but as we know they are destined to be together. (It helps, too, that Petruchio’s arrogance is offset by his whimsical “lackey,” Grumio, danced with outsized wit by Gavin Abercrombie).
Through a bit of cloak-and-dagger (and savvy lighting by Howell Binkley, which shifts from brilliantine to Transylvanian gloom), Prospero takes the pair on a time-travel tour of Shakespeare’s love-couples: For a section dubbed “Love Lost,” the action shifts abruptly to a gorgeous, straight-ahead romantic pas de deux between the hapless Romeo (Kevin Wilson) and Juliet (Kaleena Burks), to tender music by Rachmaninoff. For “Love Found” we travel to ancient Egypt and observe Cleopatra (Emily Mistretta) and Julius Caesar (Javier Morales), who do not shy at the comedic aspect of being surrounded by exotically clad courtiers and gladiators (at one point she even “walks like an Egyptian”). Again, we get an effusive yet angularly intimate duet, as Katarina and Petruchio are “stripped,” of their pretense and of most of their clothing, by the knowing Caesar and Cleopatra (who both know that life is all too short). “Exposing their souls,” as the libretto reads, “and allowing them together to finally discover their destiny: true love.” David’s exceptional piece provided a welcome respite, and used dance masterfully to tell a funny, clearly defined tale.
Words often fail when describing dance, and especially when a piece forms such a complete experience that one resorts to high-fallutin’ words such as gestalt. First performed in 1986, Twyla’s In the Upper Room is just such a work: Its impact on the psyche is ultimately unexplainable, and it is furthermore beyond the sum of what we can observe to be the “parts.” It is built on bedrock foundation: Philip Glass has provided Twyla with one of his most explosively inventive, raucously playful compositions. Its organic wholeness is so effective that it enters the brain in tandem with the visual, to help make the piece what is. Just as important, Twyla’s choreography is a miniature compendium (wittingly or not) of the whole history of Western dance, from Franco-Russian ballet to the hyper-symmetrical “canvases” of Balanchine, from the aggressive partnering of early modern dance to popular styles of jazz, Broadway, and even Fancy Free: with three shirtless men (dancing a slow, seductive soft-shoe) standing in for the sailors of Robbins’ ballet.
Upper Room is a half-hour of utter fascination for the eye and the ear. Norma Kamali’s ’80s-ish costume designs begin with prison-stripe outfits into which bits of bright red begin to creep: In the pointe shoes, in tank-tops, in leotards. Twyla’s choreography (staged here by Shelley Washington and Gil Boggs) is built from motifs seen at the outset: The ballerinas swing a leg around and catch it from behind: Later, three couples present a set of loose-fitting classical moves, eventually forming a sort of chain-link. A myriad of variations sprout, almost all of which can be traced back to the opening moments. Several complex yet balletically “clean” pas de deux are juxtaposed with willfully cluttered larger ensembles, in which some dancers present conventional steps (often at double- or triple-time), and others move as if in slow motion. One is constantly aware of the sharp division between the “ballet dancers” and the tennis-shoed gym bunnies who look like they’ve shown up for rehearsal. As the piece progresses, rarely wavering from the frenetic, some of the dancers shed clothing, and we understand that we are supposed to see them sweating.
The finale is a take on cornball Russian classical ballet: Each of the subsets we have observed through the previous “segments” parades onstage, revisiting earlier steps so as to remind us of the remarkable feats they’ve performed. But the touch of competitive spirit that can invade such scenes gives way, thanks partly to the ever-intensifying music, to an explosion of what can only be identified as the sheer joy of bodies moving to great music.
In a middle segment of Upper Room, the piano takes over for a dream-like passage and the mind briefly loses its bearings: During my first viewing I thought it was just me, but when two friends told me the same thing had happened to them, I returned the following night only to find that it happened yet again. I can’t fully explain it. Such is the nature of great art: You keep coming back to it, in search of answers.
Also included among the dancers, some in rotating casts, are Cameron Thomas, Whitney Huell, Lamin Pereira dos Santos, Sarah Joan Smith, Elysa Hotchkiss, Kelsey Hellebuyck, Angelin Carrant, Goldie Walberg, Enrico Hipolito, Marisa DeEtte Whiteman, Amanda DeVenuta, Joshua Bodden, Daniel Rodriguez, Christopher Constantini, Connor Hammond, Samantha Huebner, Nicholas Keeperman, Wojciech Ogloza, and Divya Rea.
NOTE: This is an adaptation of an article first published in The Independent in November 2020, shortly before the December world premiere of the Lyric’s Amahl. That year, COVID-19 prevented…
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