Up on your feet for the Upper Room

A standing ovation following a ballet performance in Melbourne is a very rare event.

I remember only one, when the premiere of Stephen Baynes’ Beyond Bach, had the audience on its feet 20 years ago.

Last week in Melbourne, at the opening night of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill, 20:21, the closing work, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, brought the same response that it almost always receives around the world.

Why does it happen?

There’s not just one reason but also a combination of the athletic choreography, the onstage fog/smoke effect and the pulsating score by Philip Glass.

Of the three elements, the score might be at the most compelling, as the repetitive music is mesmeric in its ever-escalating power.

Glass, who grew up in Jewish family, later became a Buddhist, studied classical Indian dance and worked with Ravi Shankar, as we’re reminded in his recently published memoir, Music Without Words.

His score for In the Upper Room reflects these associations, driven, as it is, by the hypnotic and meditative music once described as “veering between the beauty of a waterfall, or of waves crashing on a beach”.

One of Twyla Tharp’s most important colleagues and dancers, Shelley Washington, is a central figure in the way she unites three tours of In the Upper Room with Australia.

In 1988 she was one of the dancers in a group who brought Tharp works on a tour of Australia. In the Upper Room was one of them. The ballet was performed in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

In 1997, the Australian Ballet’s new artistic director, Ross Stretton, asked Washington to stage In the Upper Room for the company and in 2015, she returned to stage it once more for the company.

She’s generous with her thoughts on the ballet that she’s set many times on companies around the world.

For a program article for this year’s Australian Ballet season I asked her how she introduced the work to a new generation of dancers.

She compared the rehearsal process with bringing up children, telling the dancers, “you know guys, in the beginning you’re going to be like little kids.

“You’re going to be so excited, discovering. You’re going to be crawling and then you’re going to be at the side of the table trying to stand up and falling. But I’m going to be standing at the side of the room and I’ll be calling you and you’re going to run into my arms. That’s how it goes.

“How do you learn to walk? You have to take some steps, you have to be in a safe environment, you have to fall and recover, you have to have someone who protects you but also lets you explore, and someone who is going to be there for you when you start to walk and run”.

In the first days of rehearsal “I don’t like to put fear into anybody but I ask them to watch what they drink and what they eat.

“It’s like running a marathon. Usually on the second day they’re sore because there are so many different muscles [involved in the movement] and their brains are sore because there are so many steps. It takes a lot of time to learn it and to really get to the point where the dancers can do it and not feel they’re going to die”.

Washington tells the dancers “activate where necessary, relax where possible. Use only the muscles you need and the rest you let go. Just don’t get frustrated, we will get it and we always do! Everyone gets it in the end.

“Trust me, breathe, relax. It takes a lot out of me personally, so many steps, so much to do. But I love it, I really love it, I really do”.

As for the audience reaction: “They feel the dancers have given it their all. What more can you ask for?”

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Christine Uchida, Erzsebet Foldi and Shelley Washington as the Stompers, In the Upper Room, photo ©Herbert Migdoll

Elysa Hotchkiss, Eva Trapp and Julia Erickson, In the Upper Room, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In the Upper Room, Houston Ballet, photo © Amitava Sarkar