Twyla Tharp returns with the uplifting “Upper Room”

NEW YORK — The crowded dancing audience at New York City Center didn’t miss a beat.

Just before the lights went out for the second act of Twyla Tharp’s new program on Wednesday night, some in the crowd spotted the 81-year-old choreographer squeezing into her seat, small and lithe, with a bob of gray hair – and undeniable for dancing Fans. There was a round of sustained cheering.

If the adoration seemed intense, note that this crowd had just watched its dancers perform “In the Upper Room,” Tharp’s breathtaking 1986 classic that sends dancers to the edge of their abilities.

Breathtaking is an apt description in more ways than one. The spectators literally gasp, but we imagine that the dancers do it even more, behind the scenes, in the (very) brief pauses between entrances and exits. That they manage to find enough breath is almost miraculous – and explains their broad smiles at the encores.

What are they thinking? It seems that dancers – and there have been many, from different companies, for over 36 years – are thrilled both to perform the work and to have survived it. There’s no doubt that Tharp’s fiendishly difficult choreography, set to propulsive music by Philip Glass, is a test of endurance that only the best dancers can even contemplate. But there is always an undercurrent of joy and elation. Tharp’s masterpiece is one that hardly anyone gets tired of seeing over and over again – and almost addictive for some dance fans (guilty as well as accused).

For this current iteration, which runs until October 23 at City Center, Tharp paired “In the Upper Room” with another well-known and very different work, his 1982 “Nine Sinatra Songs.”

And she brought together an excellent ensemble of 17 dancers from various companies, including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey, as well as former dancers from Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, among others. It’s a collection of veterans and some early in their careers. Several dancers were on their way to retirement; one, Jada German, a recent Juilliard graduate.

In “Upper Room,” the curtain rises on a fog-filled stage, across which dancers suddenly appear — “out of nowhere,” Tharp said. The nine sections bring different groups in and out – five dancers, 10 dancers, six dancers (there are 13 in total).

First, what Tharp calls the main “stompers” – dancers in white sneakers. In this production, honors went to Willowy Kaitlyn Gilliland, formerly of NYCB, and Stephanie Petersen, formerly of ABT.

There are also three notable principal dancers wearing bright red pointe shoes and ankle socks: Jeanette Delgado, from Germany, and current ABT director Cassandra Trenary.

Costumes are key: Norma Kamali’s ensembles transform as the 40-minute whirlwind of movement progresses. Black and white striped pajama-style outfits peel back, first the tops and then the bottoms, to reveal bright red leotards underneath. And some of the male dancers – Lloyd Knight, Richard Villaverde and Reed Tankersley – are tasked with stripping their shirts midway through and showing, including sweat, just how (very hard) everyone works.

In the second act “Nine Sinatra Songs”, Tharp focuses on couples, and more specifically on relationships. There’s a fighting couple, a dreamy happy couple, a flirting couple – each vignette is set to a song like “Strangers in the Night”, “One for My Baby” or, twice, as a kind of double finale, “My Way”. “

If it’s not as exhausting (or sweat-filled) as “Upper Room”, this piece is certainly demanding on its dancers, with each duo full of complicated lifts and tricky partnering maneuvers. Delgado and Danny Ulbricht bet on charm and verve in “That’s Life”, and Trenary, so sharp and efficient in “Upper Room”, was equally impressive with Benjamin Freemantle in a stimulating duet on “One for My Baby”.

Tharp told The New York Times that she chose “Upper Room,” a natural evening, to open this show instead because it depicted survival in an age when the performing arts like dance weren’t not so long ago, were closed with no assurance of when they would return. And yes, the dancers at the end looked thrilled to have “survived” — but also energized and elated. As the crowd also felt when she jumped to her feet.

Dora W. Clawson