Twyla Tharp

In The Upper Room

Genre Dichotomies in Twyla Tharp’s »In The Upper Room«

By Kyle Bukhari BA, MA, Dance Scholar

In 1985, Twyla Tharp found herself in Los Angeles after a venture onto the Broadway stage with »Singin’ in the Rain« had left her questioning her identity as an artist. To combat self-doubt, she turned to what she knew best: the possibilities found within movement. She began taking yoga. In a church that rented space, she practiced her ballet barre, improvised, and, in her own words, »bopped around«. With a newfound optimism, Ms Tharp got to work, bringing together dancers from her original company and auditioning new talent. The idea: a choreographic exploration of movement canon, structured by oppositional elements. Inspired by her early experiments in »The Fugue« (1974), the use of canon in »In The Upper Room« would be pared down, economic, to expose the underlying dichotomies within the dance: right vs. left, linear vs. geometric, backward vs. forward, contrapuntal vs. harmonic, travelling vs. static and female vs. male.

The oppositional motif is strikingly apparent in Ms Tharp’s juxtaposition of classical and modern dancers on the same stage, an innovation she first employed in »Deuce Coupe« (1973) for the Joffrey Ballet, that included dancers from her own company. For »In The Upper Room«, the choreographer contrasts the dance styles exuberantly: the sneaker-clad, modern dance »Stompers«, with their eclectic lexicon of weighted movements drawn from contemporary and popular dance, yoga and sports, are paired with the ballet »Bomb Squad«, who, in their iconic red pointe shoes, embody the evolution of ballet with their vertical, staccato articulations, executed at dizzyingly high speeds. Ms Tharp did not hybridize the two dance genres − instead, she brought the modern and classical forms together as discrete stylistic dualities within a postmodern pastiche. With »In The Upper Room«, Twyla Tharp showed audiences there was no actual difference between ballet and modern dance. Both were organized by the same principle: the physics of movement, with each contributing equally to the exhilarating energy of the work.

Work Cited:
Twyla Tharp, Push Comes to Shove (New York: Bantam Books, 1992)

Soundscapes and pure emotions: Philip Glass’s music for »In The Upper Room«

By Dr. Mauro Fosco Bertola, Musicologist

Trained at the renowned Juilliard School of Music and with the composer Nadia Boulanger in Paris, a teacher personality central to 20th-century music, the American »enfant terrible« of minimal music, Philip Glass, could never find his place in the music of the Western European avant-garde of the time: »A wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy, creepy music,« as he once defined the serial music of his European colleagues.*

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Instead, he collaborated with Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar and began experimenting with various repetition techniques. International success came in 1976 with the music theater work »Einstein on the Beach«. From now on, the Minimal Music was respectable.

The ballet »In The Upper Room« was created in 1986, when Glass had already found his characteristic musical language. The nine movements of this abstract music function like specific soundscapes: each brings its own characteristic voice through instrumentation, tempo, and rhythmic patterns. Through the use of similar or sometimes identical musical material, these soundscapes form a subliminal network of echoes and inner references which generate a well-calibrated rise in sonic and emotional intensity up to the entry of the soprano in the last movement. The result is a musical drama that – in its alternation of slow and fast tempos as well as its balancing of different moods and instrumental colours, culminating in a final climax – recalls the tradition of the great variation cycles of the 18th and 19th centuries.

This music of varied repetitions and drawing from what has already been heard allows us to encounter familiar emotions and feelings as independent, decontextualized fragments: they move us fleetingly and disappear without a trace along with the abstract movements on the stage. Freed from any attachment to characters, narratives, or settings, they flow into our inner being and, in a completely liberating and calming manner, become pure objects of our perception.


*Philip Glass quoted by Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century. London: Harper Perennial 2009, p. 503.

Philip Glass

Through his operas, his symphonies, his compositions for his own ensemble, and his wide-ranging collaborations with artists ranging from Twyla Tharp to Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen to David Bowie, Philip Glass has had an extraordinary and unprecedented impact upon the musical and intellectual life of his times. The new musical style that Glass developed was eventually referred to as »Minimal Music«. However, he himself prefers calling himself as a composer of »music with repetitive structures«, for much of his works consist of the extensive repetition of brief, elegant melodic patterns, which are sometimes integrated into a soundscape.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Philip Glass (*1937) is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School. By 1974, he had created a large collection of music for The Philip Glass Ensemble, seven musicians playing keyboards and a variety of woodwinds, amplified and fed through a mixer. The period culminated in his landmark opera, »Einstein on the Beach«.Since then, Glass’s repertoire has grown to include music for opera, dance, theater, orchestra, and film. His scores have received Academy Award nominations (»Kundun«, »The Hours«, »Notes on a Scandal«) and a Golden Globe (»The Truman Show«). Glass received the Praemium Imperiale in 2012, the U.S. National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama in 2016, and 41st Kennedy Center Honors in 2018.

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Reprinted by kind permission of Dunvagen Music Publishers

(Status: 2024)

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