The taut physiques of four world-renowned ballet dancers bound back and forth across the Harvard Dance Center’s main studio. They’re wearing sneakers, and one of them is going the wrong direction.
A good-natured Keith Roberts, longtime dancer with American Ballet Theater, is coaching them through the still unfamiliar choreography of “In the Upper Room.” One of Twyla Tharp’s most grueling and intricate works to date, the piece is slated to be performed during Boston Ballet’s upcoming season.
This scene took place on March 19 during the latest installment of Boston Ballet Dance Talks, a collaboration between the Office for the Arts (OFA) at Harvard and Boston’s most famous professional dance company. The program was established when Mikko Nissinen first became artistic director in order to facilitate exchange between Harvard and Boston Ballet, and to introduce Boston Ballet’s upcoming season to potential audience members.
In the first row of seats sat Nissinen, Margaret Tracey—famed New York City ballet dancer and a recent addition to the Boston faculty—and an assortment of the Harvard Dance Program’s own staff. As Roberts reconstructed Tharp’s choreography, he explained his project.
“Instead of presenting a whole piece of movement I thought it best to show how Twyla would create something,” he said. “I’m going to show you how it was devised and broken down and dissected to be turned into choreography.”
Such was the insider’s view offered by the program. “In the Upper Room” was one of three works excerpted and discussed. Also featured on the program were excerpts from Anthony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies” and George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco.”
“This is a sort of 20th century masterpieces program, so it’s a great chance to see three really superb, really contrasting works by real master choreographers of the 20th century,” Rachel Yurman, the program’s moderator, says. “The larger purpose is that our mission is to educate as well as to perform. This is a great way to bring our performance close to not only audiences of today but audiences of the future.”
Because “Dark Elegies” was not yet in rehearsal, Nissinen provided a brief, heartfelt introduction to Tudor, whose centennial year is approaching, and then screened a video clip of the mournful pas de deux. Though the rather grainy projection lacked the subtlety of facial expression and movement quality of a live performance, it succeeded in showcasing the understated, gestural quality of Tudor’s choreography. Set to the deeply emotional music of Gustav Mahler, the work provided a strong counterpoint to the sprightlier “Barocco.”
Tracey says of “Barocco,” “In 18 minutes you see everything you need to know about ballet...The marriage between the music and the movement in this piece is perfection.”
To the sound of a lone accompanist, dancers Lia Cirio and Melanie Atkins demonstrated the quick pointework and exacting musicality characteristic of the iconic work, which first debuted in 1941. Meant to personify the violins in Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins,” the two women delightfully executed an excerpt from the first movement.
The evening maintained a casual atmosphere, facilitated by the speakers’ candor and the rough, demonstrative nature of the performances themselves. This informal setting is a key feature of the series.
“There are very few occasions when you get to see a company this big so close,” Larissa D. Koch ’08, a dancer and choreographer herself, said after the event. “Most of the other venues they perform in are really huge, and this is a sort of intimacy that you wouldn’t normally get with such a large company.”
Though on some level the dance talks are meant as an introduction to an audience unfamiliwar with dance, much of the audience was comprised of seasoned balletomanes.
“Because everyone perceives dance so differently, to share in an experience like this might help someone who’s seen a dance 15 or 20 times to see something new,” Joshua Legg, OFA Dance Assistant, says. “That’s one of the things that keeps the dance world, particularly masterworks like these, feeling fresh. Not only because they are artistically brilliant pieces of work but because there’s an opportunity to see them from a new perspective.”