Preview / Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre turns to Twyla Tharp to open season

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A triple threat of 20th-century standouts in fashion, music and choreography will open Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 44th season when the company presents "An Evening of Twyla Tharp" at the Benedum Center next weekend.

For the first time since 2010, audiences will be treated to a revival of Ms. Tharp's "In the Upper Room" (1986), a stamina-testing marathon of movement set to a Philip Glass score. This time it will be paired with another Tharp classic, "Nine Sinatra Songs" (1982), last staged by PBT in 2006.

"They are great works," artistic director Terrence Orr says. "Twyla Tharp to me is one of the great American choreographers."

She also is one of his longtime colleagues.

'An Evening of Twyla Tharp'

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. next Sunday.

Tickets: or 412-456-6666.

"I've known her for many years, since almost her very beginning," he says. "We kind of grew up at a parallel time in New York City."

He watched Ms. Tharp shape "Nine Sinatra Songs" into the work it is today. Setting the pieces on PBT's dancers is Shelley Washington, who met Ms. Tharp when she was 17. She was a member of her company and worked with her for decades. Now she travels the country helping other companies stage her repertoire.

"In the Upper Room" was made after Ms. Tharp's dancers had spent a year performing "Singin' in the Rain" on Broadway.

"After that, she came back and brought a company together," Ms. Washington says.

A handful of dancers came from her old group, while about half a dozen others were new. Ms. Tharp reflected this marriage of artists in the structure of "Upper Room," which merges a group of dancers in sneakers (dubbed the "stompers") with ones in pointe shoes (called the "bomb squad").

"It was a wonderful mix and a very creative time," says Ms. Washington, who danced in the original production.

Red leotards and black-and-white striped tracksuits by fashion designer Norma Kamali are other nods to the athletic nature of "Upper Room." Dancers layer and remove the apparel -- revealing the leotards underneath -- as the dance builds in intensity, similar to how dancers begin rehearsals in sweats and peel them off as they warm up, Ms. Washington says.

In "Nine Sinatra Songs," elegance juxtaposes athleticism. Women in Oscar de la Renta gowns and heels and men in tuxedos pas de deux to well-known tunes, including "Strangers in the Night," "My Way" and "One for My Baby." "Nine Sinatra Songs" was Ms. Tharp's tribute to the beauty of partner dancing.

"Men and women and modern dance weren't really dancing together," Ms. Washington says. "People were going to discos and not really holding on [to each other] anymore."

Ms. Washington and Mr. Orr are able to share these firsthand stories of the iconic choreographer with PBT dancers.

"It gives us a lot of insight into the repertoire and helps us make it a vision that Twyla was going for back in the 1980s," says soloist Amanda Cochrane.

Although decades have passed since these dances were first done, Mr. Orr believes they still resonate with audiences.

"They'll be exhilarated," he says. "I think they'll be inspired, first singing the songs of Sinatra and looking at the visual beauty of Oscar de la Renta's costumes and the incredible line of romantic couples. When they see 'In the Upper Room,' their hearts will be pounding so hard by the end."


Sara Bauknecht: or Twitter @SaraB_PG. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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