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Built to Last by Barbara Newman

Posted on July 4, 2018

Why does Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room always bring the house down? Why does William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated ignite cheers every time it’s performed? Neither ballet has a set or a story, which, we’re constantly informed, ballet audiences in the UK prefer to anything else. Neither comes attached to lengthy notes by the choreographer, a dramaturg or a historian, which now seem nearly inescapable.

The answer isn’t that movement alone can win an audience. Abstract in style, stripped of décor and dramatic narrative and laden with explanations, Alexander Whitley’s Kin. and George Williamson’s Embrace offer a continuous flow of movement that neither held my attention nor tweaked my imagination half as effectively as Upper Room, with which they shared a Birmingham Royal Ballet programme at Sadler’s Wells.

For me, the answer lies in architecture or structure, which is every bit as vital to choreography as the individual moves it displays. One of Tharp’s dancers-turned-balletmaster once told me, “Twyla can put a thousand steps in a minute, and then they go backwards and do all kinds of inversions.” Tharp’s genius for organisation arranges those thousand steps in fascinating sequences and keeps them in perfect order, even at top speed, so we can absorb them.

How much can she juggle at one time? You’d be amazed. In the Upper Room combines two groups who attack movement of such dizzying complexity it makes your head spin. One gang, informally called the Stompers, wears trainers; the other, in pointe shoes (slippers for the men), was originally known as the Bomb Squad or the Pointers.

In her autobiography, Tharp described the piece as “buttressed throughout by the counterpoising of dual elements, whether in space, time or personnel: left, right; linear, geometric; base-line, melodic figure; backward, forward; contrapuntal, harmonic; static, traveling; male, female… I wanted to build on all the dichotomies.” Accepting the challenge she set for us when she set it for herself is half the fun. “Nothing would just be stated,” she wrote, “Everything would have to come around again, wiser, more mature, more developed.” That includes the viewers too, if they can meet the choreography’s demands with the same speed, flexibility and courage the dancers must summon.

Created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1987 and a raging success everywhere since then, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated came to Sadler’s Wells recently as the opening of an all-Forsythe programme by Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett. Now more than ever it strikes me as an exploratory equation Forsythe devised for the pleasure of solving it.

He has balanced the sizzling heft of daredevil manoeuvres and close-fitting canons, which characterised his radical style for many years, with pure classical technique snapped into fractional units. As several dancers risk health and safety downstage, others behind them present basic positions – port de bras, tendu, passé – shifting direction independently as if they’re working privately.

Sturdy as houses, ballet’s intrinsic clarity underpins the deliberate distortions he has imposed on it. With a nod to Balanchine, he deployed exaggerated croisé positions; linking steps that assume the same importance as final poses; glissades with the legs stretched simultaneously. At the same time he tore all that symmetry apart, pointing neoclassicism toward its next unimagined incarnation.

Neue Suite explores ballet’s past and future from another angle in a compendium of pas de deux from Forsythe’s earlier works. Far from accidental, the sequence of selections allows the piece to develop like a pas de deux itself.

As Handel gives way to Berio, which yields to Bach, each duet becomes more daring and less familiar, meeting the music fair and square in unpredictable territory. The partnering grows increasingly intimate and tangled, as tightly wound as Bach’s harmonies, before the final duet, to Handel, returns to a traditional format with the participants alternating in solo variations.

No wonder audiences cheer. It’s always satisfying when a choreographer embeds a map in a dance and creates compelling reasons for you to follow it.

Pictured: Top Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Momoko Hirata and Miki Mizutani with Yasuo Atsuji and Delia Mathews in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Photograph by Bill Cooper. Bottom Sarah Hay and Elena Vostrotina of the Semperoper Ballett in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Photograph by Ian Whalen.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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