The catch is that the dancers don’t look like Stompers and Ballet types: they look like Tharp dancers, and the Red Shoes allusion of the Ballet women’s scarlet footwear only underlines the way, as Croce observed, the pointe work stems from the ankle rather than the hip. Glass’s score, apart from those spooky brass advertising slogans from the Beyond in IV and the Vertigo-like Bernard Herrmann oscillations in VIII, is 40 minutes of burbling ostinato before the cathedral-choir vocalise kicks in; the music doesn’t ascend to Heaven, it simply arrives. The same is true of Tharp’s choreography, and the dancers are so anonymous that you might not recognize the Crossover Girl, whom you first saw in II, when she re-enters in VIII. You might not even realize that Stompers and Ballet types are dancing together in VI.
Still, the right cast — think Patrick Armand and Paul Thrussell and Kyra Strasberg and Julie Bacon and Jennifer Gelfand and Pollyana Ribeiro and Larissa Ponomarenko in Boston Ballet ’94 and ’95, when the smoke enveloped the dancers like a Cloud of Unknowing — can make In the Upper Room speak in tongues. Marred by off-balance turns and clumsy lifts and a collision, opening night 2008 looked more like the Tower of Babel, but the first cast eventually found a common language, Stomper Melissa Hough writhing like Salome, head Ballet girl Romi Beppu beaming with belief, Bomb Squad member Rie Ichikawa possessed by divine authority, and, in VIII, Crossover Girl Kelley Potter conjuring a profane Kim Novak. (Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening there were also some designated hitters: Josephine Pra replacing Lia Cirio in I, II, V, and VI; Lorin Mathis filling in for Yury Yanowsky in VI and flipping Pra as smoothly as if she were a pancake) The second cast occupied a different universe: Stomper Melanie Atkins was a heavenly body revolving like Fred Astaire crossed with a Slinky and reminding us that Tharp is a funny lady; head Ballet girl Kathleen Breen Combes, rotating in flat-footed arabesque as if God’s own hand were turning her, came on like Mary Magdalene; Misa Kuranaga and Tempe Ostergren lit the Bomb Squad fuse; Ballet boys Carlos Molina and Jared Redick flicked from karate kick to gargouillade, and a subversive Mindaugas Bauzys was supreme in the silly slides; and in the difficult sit lift at the end of V, the Stomper boys — Jaime Diaz (a Bomb Squad all by himself), James Whiteside, and Bradley Schlagheck — made it seem the Stomper girls were ascending. Suddenly Tharp’s work looked like a masterpiece, and they were the masters of it.
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