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.
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