Michael Bierut | Essays

Designing Twyla Tharp's Upper Room

In the Upper Room, choreography by Twyla Tharp, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, 1986

In 1986, choreographer Twyla Tharp , coming off horrible reviews for her latest project, an over-elaborate Broadway revival of Singin' in the Rain, decided to get back to basics. Remembering the characteristics of one of her favorite pieces from twelve years before, The Fugue — "no costumes, no music, no lights, just committed and extraordinary souls doing a hard day's work with intelligence and love" — she decided her next piece would project the same simplicity.

This piece turned out to be In the Upper Room. Unlike The Fugue, this dance would have costumes (by Norma Kamali) and music (by Philip Glass) and lights (by her longtime collaborator Jennifer Tipton), but the goal would be a new kind of simplicity. She explained to Tipton and her set designer, Santo Loquasto, how the piece would begin. The lights would come up on with two woman standing on a bare stage, each striking the stage with one foot and withdrawing back into the space. And then, something amazing would happen: three men would suddenly materialize at the center of the stage. As Tharp puts it in her 1992 memoir, Push Comes to Shove, "All I said to Jenny and Santo was, 'I don't care how you do it, they must just appear out of nowhere.'"

And that's basically what happens.

When the subject is great experience design, some designers think of Starbucks. What a pity. I think of In the Upper Room. I saw it again last week for the first time in ten years, performed by American Ballet Theater at New York's City Center. The performance was every bit as miraculous and powerful as I remembered.

Set to one of Philip Glass's best, most propulsive scores , In the Upper Room is 40 continuous minutes of what one reviewer has called "the sheer exuberance of motion." I usually like contrast and dynamics; In the Upper Room has none. It starts with the dial set at ten and over the course of the evening works its way up to somewhere north of eleven. In those days Tharp had been working with Teddy Atlas, a boxer who had helped train the young Mike Tyson, and it shows: she describes the piece as "a display of athletic prowess based on endurance, power, speed, and timing." It is just about as subtle as Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, and as thrilling.

What is subtle is the way lighting designer Jennifer Tipton met Tharp's impossible challenge, to make the dancers "appear out of nowhere" on an empty stage. Here's how she did it. Thanks to smoke machines, In the Upper Room is staged in an even, featureless haze. The dancers are invisible until they are picked out by Tipton's precise, razor-sharp lighting. It's a simple effect, familiar to anyone who has driven a car on a foggy night, but in the hands of this brilliant designer the results are as mesmerizing as anything by James Turell. As the piece reaches its climax, dancers seem to materialize out of nowhere before your eyes every few seconds. Tipton's lighting is the kind of magic that delights you even when you know how exactly the trick works.

Because it plays such a major role in the production, the lighting for In the Upper Room has been much discussed and widely honored. This degree of attention is unusual; like many designers, Tipton's work is frequently dismissed as that of a technician, a craft worker supporting the real artists. As she observes in "Light Unseen," an essay in the latest issue of Esopus,

To be a lighting designer, one must accept the fact that few people will notice what you do. I have always said that 99 44/100 percent of the audience will not see the lighting, but 100 percent of the audience will be affected by it. I had hoped that my art would change that in some small way, but light seems to be too transparent, too ephemeral. We look through it to see the dance or the play, not really noting that there is a person who controls our perception by shaping it and giving it meaning and context.

But every once in a while, the artistry of the lighting designer materializes on stage right in front of you. "In the Upper Room is the only piece I've done," Tharp has said, "that generates a standing ovation at almost every performance." It did so again at City Center last week, when the audience jumped to its feet on cue to applaud Twyla Tharp, Philip Glass, thirteen extraordinary American Ballet Theatre dancers, and — probably without knowing it — the evening's unheralded star, Jennifer Tipton.

Posted in: Music

Comments [5]

Hey Michael — I had a similar experience while in the audience for (greatest living composer) Robert Ashley's Dust. Yukihiro Yoshihara's staging presented five people at music stands, speaking/occasionally singing, standing below video monitors and behind sheets of UMU glass — which has an electrically-controlled film on its surface that can adjust transparency.

Seeing someone who is standing in front of me suddenly become blurry could have been the kind of moment that one remembers over everything else. But unlike Tharp, Ashley's work has greater subtlety and substance; and consequently can offer more than the experience of submission and awe.

Tharp's aesthetic has a KrashBang quality. There is the collision between classical and modern technique, the extremities of collaboration (Billy Joel to Robert Wilson, Sinatra to Beethoven), and the breathless start-at-10 aesthetic (not that there's anything wrong with that); but sometimes one would like a deeper experience. She's not the kind of choreographer, like Cunningham for example, to observe someone stepping off the curb and extrapolating that movement into a piece.

Your description of In The Upper Room focusses on a narrative moment — the sudden appearance of dancers out of thick air — and makes little mention of the dance itself other than to mention its athleticism. Back in the mid-50's Cunningham wrote "that dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along, and its life and vigor and attraction lie in just that singleness."

I once read a critique of the Tharp/David Byrne collaboration The Catherine Wheel (flying pineapples!?) that used the construction "dance-mime", and have been unable to shake that description when seeing a Tharp work. Over the years, I've seen more of her work than Cunningham's. Yet I always come away from Merce on the verge of tears and with a fuller heart — and in effect, he offers less!

So ultimately, I'm compelled to question your argument that In The Upper Room is great experience design. Granted, designers are constantly presented with the need to communicate quickly and louder than the next fellow; but isn't this just another case of "making the type bigger"? If we are so impressed by this, then our arguments against a big honking logo are as solid as the fog on Tharp's stage.
m. kingsley


Well, God knows I can be a sucker for a big honking logo and some enormous type as much as the next guy. I've got nothing against subtlety. Sometimes you want to listen for the sound of a drop of water; sometimes you just want to get hit with a tidal wave. Or at least I do.

There are always dangers in going for the big, surefire affect. In her book, Tharp describes going on the road with her first huge hit, Deuce Coupe, which she created for the Joffrey Ballet in 1973. It is classical ballet moves set to the Beach Boys, performed as graffiti artists paint the stage. "Gradually I came to disapprove of the audience I had worked so hard to please," she writes. "I had thought Deuce Coupe was a success because it was a well-crafted dance, challenging and developing techniques and traditions. Instead I came to realize there was a large portion of the Joffrey audience that liked almost anything as long as it had bright lights, scenery, or loud music..."

I suppose artists — and designers — who work hard to please their audiences always confront the danger of losing their soul. I wonder if Twyla Tharp would disapprove of me?
Michael Bierut

Michael — Nothing wrong with pleasing audiences. Giving elevated aesthetic credence to the theatrical equivalent of jazz hands is where my eyebrow raises slightly. There's a world of difference between the avant garde and Broadway in both intent and method; and the danger of artists loosing their soul is one of self-integrity — no matter what the milieu.

I can't answer to Tharp's soul, but I do know how I feel about her work and its relationship to mine. To each his own.
m. kingsley

In addition to the amazing lighting, what I also took away from the 1986 performance was how well Norma Kamali's graphic costume stripes enhanced the choreography. Not to mention the red toe shoes as what Gordon Salchow would deem "the spice element."
Mrs. Gill Sans

Dance lighting holds a rather unique place in the hierarchy of 'design.' As Jean Rosenthal, a dance lighting pioneer and Martha Grahm's designer, has famously said "Dancers live in light like fish live in water." In the world of contemporary dance one need look no further than the work of William Forsythe to see how integral and necessary lighting is for the dance. The first dance was celebrating the hunt around the bonfire. The dancer has always needed their light inorder to breathe.
Lucas Krech

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