Boundary Pushing Ballet To Take The Stage In Last Production of The Season

By Artistic Director James Sofranko
April 22, 2024

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., April 22, 2024Before becoming the Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet, I was a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet for 18 years, performing in that city and around the world. I performed many difficult works during my time there, but none of my experiences in that company equaled the challenge given to me by Twyla Tharp in her show Movin’ Out. Every night during that show, I had more than one moment in the wings doubled over, gasping for breath, reaching for the dixie cup of water handed to me by the stage manager, doubting my ability to muster the strength required to go back out. Despite the physical toil exerted on my body, I loved every minute of performing that show and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

In the Upper Room, Choreography by Twyla Tharp Twyla Tharp. Kansas City Ballet Dancers. Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

In The Upper Room is one of Twyla Tharp’s most famous works, performed by dance companies worldwide and for the first time at Grand Rapids Ballet on April 26-28 and May 3-5, 2024. The ballet provides a transcendent experience for dancers and audiences alike, pushing the dancers to the limit of their capabilities, physically and mentally. Twyla’s steps are based in classical ballet, but take inspiration from a myriad of sources, including yoga and tap, creating a unique style. Paired with a score by Philip Glass, the energy continually builds, and the dancers ride a wave of momentum fueled by the collective energy of the cast. It is one of the most exciting ballets I have ever seen.

I met Twyla once during my audition process for Movin’ Out. She was cool and calm and down to business. She had me learn a phrase of choreography, and then when it seemed like I was comfortable with that phrase, she asked me to retrograde it on the spot, with her watching. It was a little terrifying, but reflecting back on that moment today, 20 years later, I liked that she pushed me beyond the normal, beyond what I expected.

She wanted a dancer that would match her own drive for going beyond. In the end, dancing her work gave me the confidence that I could go beyond my own perceived abilities, and that is a gift that I have carried with me my whole career, on and off the stage. I can only guess at the number of dancers that she has inspired throughout her life, and our dancers are just the latest lucky ones to experience the challenge and the gift of her work.

We have been hard at work for the past five weeks to learn In The Upper Room from repetiteur Kaitlyn Gilliland for no less than 100 hours of rehearsal. It is impressive that one person alone can know all of the thousands of steps required to perform this ballet. The dancers have had to push themselves in new ways stylistically, physically, and mentally. I am excited for them to have this opportunity; not all dancers get to experience this ballet or Twyla’s work.  I had to submit videos of the company to the Tharp Foundation before Twyla would agree for us to license it. Grand Rapids Ballet, Philadelphia Ballet, and Miami City Ballet are the three companies in the United States given permission to perform the ballet this season.

The ballet itself is separated into two groups, referred to as the ‘stompers’ and ‘ballet people,’ with the stompers in sneakers, performing more grounded percussive movement, and the ballet people demonstrating virtuosic classical technique with Twyla’s signature nonchalance and speed.  Two of the ballet people are dubbed the “bomb squad” for their breakneck speed and unison as they careen from one side of the stage to the other.  All dancers must execute their choreography with intricate stage patterns and complicated musical phrasing.  Some of the phrases also repeat, mirror, and retrograde, creating yet another element of challenge.  This work is just as much an exercise mentally as physically, which gives the ballet a sense of importance and focus and the dancers (hopefully) come away from this process with a feeling of accomplishment.

In the Upper Room, Choreography by Twyla Tharp Twyla Tharp. Kansas City Ballet Dancers. Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

In the Upper Room, Choreography by Twyla Tharp Twyla Tharp. Kansas City Ballet Dancers. Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

Tharp has written four books, her autobiography being one of them, but also “The Creative Habit,” a guide for any creative individual, describing her own habitual process to keep her creative juices flowing.  She is a dedicated artist, always pushing boundaries and herself in new directions.  She has choreographed hundreds of dances, as well as movies and Broadway shows.  She was also featured on a PBS documentary for American Masters, entitled “Twyla Moves.”  You can read her extensive bio here.

In The Upper Room is certainly a challenge for the dancers, but to me in a way, it is also an homage to the dancers themselves.  Almost as if to say, “Look how amazing these dancers are. Look how extraordinary they are.” They truly are like superheroes, doing things that  only years of training and dedication can provide.  The audience gets swept away on this journey of movement and becomes one with them, feeling what they are feeling.  I sincerely hope that as many people as possible will be able to witness the feats of our dancers and experience the power of In The Upper Room.  It will be unforgettable.

P.S. The first half of the program is Serenade by George Balanchine, another true masterpiece from one of 20th century’s most important and prolific choreographers. To be able to see both Serenade and In The Upper Room in the same program is a treat indeed.

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