`In the Upper Room': carefully crafted, constantly interesting

Twyla Tharp dance is the most admired, envied, maligned, imitated, and sought-after product in today's competitive dance market. As the opening night of its Brooklyn Academy of Music season proved, it is also - still - the most original, accomplished, and exciting work we've been offered in ages. ``In the Upper Room,'' Tharp's big new piece, to music of Philip Glass, is a natural successor to the utopian physicality that concluded in the ``The Catherine Wheel'' five years ago and the galvanic rage of the 1984 ``Fait Accompli.'' It's not a particularly optimistic piece, but it proclaims a joyous investment in a dancing existence, for however long existence may continue.

The 13 dancers, dressed in Norma Kamali's convertible ensembles (black and white striped jumpsuits over layers of red), emerged out of Jennifer Tipton's extraordinary, fathomless space - the stage is filled with fog and floodlights throughout the dance. The group is divided in two. The six in sneakers seem bouncy, athletic, and, by the end, almost punch-drunk from the energy they've expended; and the other half, led by four women in red pointe shoes, engage in fast balletic partner work. Two women from each camp serve as muses or leaders, introducing sections and sometimes appearing for contrast among their opposites.

But this isn't your ordinary dance about modern dance tours encountering ballet. Tharp has done that one at least twice before. Instead, it seems, she's using the contrasting movement styles and capabilities to distinguish two kinds of roles, as conventional ballet distinguishes between soloists and corps. Egalitarian to the bone, Tharp refuses to say any of her dancers are more skillful than others, but this way she can create the variety that's often lacking in contemporary pure-dance ensemble works. Though at least half her dancers are new to the company, by the end of the evening I was learning their names, because she makes so many different ways for us to see them.

``In the Upper Room'' is carefully crafted and constantly interesting in form. Maintaining a formal, presentational relationship to the audience, the dancers slip into asymmetrical vs. symmetrical arrangements in space, overlappings, and regroupings of the two cadres, as well as surprising entrances and exits, and bits of patterns keep reappearing like familiar landmarks. I begin to think of the dance as a speeded-up Balanchine-type ballet.

Or possibly ``speeding-up'' is a better description. The piece starts at a moderate pace, with Shelley Washington and guest-dancer Christine Uchida leading a shifting group that keeps an easy, steady bopping rhythm in the background, while Ellen Troy and Stephanie Foster on pointes are partnered by William Whitener and Richard Colton downstage. As the dance goes on, through unromantic pas de deux sections and playful but feisty contests, the pace seems to get faster and the music louder. The partnering of the sneaker-group gets rougher and more dangerous; that of the pointe-group gets faster and less poised. Suddenly, briefly, you see the same ostinato background against the same two-coupled foreground with which the piece began, except the costumes have mutated into a different look and the whole thing is now going at twice the original speed.

From there on, the pace escalates even more. Glass's music, his familiar brand of extruded minimalism set this time for a symphony orchestra with electric keyboards, gets louder and more pressurized - it's played on tape for the dance. The dancers all appear for what looks like it's going to be a big windup, but true to her ingenious self, Tharp instead scatters them off into the fog. Just when I think I can't stand the volume of the score another second, Washington and Uchida are alone centerstage. Grabbing the air, they pull their fists down in a gesture of defiance and the curtain falls.

Thinking about it later - the adrenalin of Tharp's new dances always pervades my dreams - I saw the dance as being about the end of the world. Pushing the dancers to some unheard-of limits of dynamism and euphoria, Tharp is suggesting a high beyond which even she can't see. If I know her though, she will.

The company will be in Brooklyn through February, followed by a 12-week national tour.

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