Review: Dancers' skill shines in engaging, energetic Tharp masterworks

Nurlan Abougaliev & Elysa Hotchkiss perform in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s season-opening 'An Evening of Twyla Tharp.'
Nurlan Abougaliev & Elysa Hotchkiss perform in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s season-opening 'An Evening of Twyla Tharp.'
Photo by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Contrasting masterpieces by contemporary choreographer Twyla Tharp provide an exhilarating opening for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 44th season. The evening's magic is an amalgam of Tharp's genius, brilliant performances and effective music.

Classical ballets are filled with idealized visions of romance and supernatural characters and events, but Tharp's creations breathe with modern sensibilities, including her deftly eclectic movement vocabulary.

“Nine Sinatra Songs” which opens the program, was first performed in 1982 and is set to recordings he made a couple of decades earlier. It consists of seven romantic duos plus two ensembles of paired dancers. The costumes are elegant: the men all in tuxedos, the women in couture silk dresses in contrasting colors that were designed by Oscar de la Renta.

The night's performance Oct. 26 at the Benedum Center went from strength to strength, beginning with the sensitivity of Hannah Carter and Robert Moore in “Softly As I Leave You.”

Elysa Hotchkiss and Alejandro Diaz created a cool surface and inner heat in “Strangers in the Night,” in which Tharp, with just the right touch of tango spice, moves beyond the smoothness of the song to an edgier experience.

Similarly, Tharp's version of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is a bold yet mainly elegant treatment of inebriated lovers, with moments of awkwardness that elicited laughter from the audience. Julia Erickson and Nicholas Coppula were superb in their fluidity, oversized movements and quick changes of pace and feeling.

Tharp's clever solution to the challenge of setting Sinatra's signature song “My Way” is to bring back each of the couples we've seen, showing they are each different. When “My Way” serves as the fourth song, it is performed by three couples. As the ninth song, it is performed by the entire cast.

The other songs between the two versions of “My Way” were also very well characterized. These duos culminated in “That's Life” performed with gripping intensity by Amana Cochrane and Nurlan Abougaliev.

“In the Upper Room” completes the program. It was first performed in 1986 and is a more primal experience. Dancers appear out of and disappear into a heavy mist at the rear of the stage. The music by Philip Glass was composed for this piece. Its pulsing nature is hypnotic and energizing.

The cast is divided into Stompers and Bomb Squad, the latter from the ballet world. Costumes label the two groups, down to the shoes. Stompers wear sneakers. Bomber ladies wear pointe shoes. Tharp's dance language draws on many worlds, including ballet, modern dance, tap dance, yoga and even, briefly, boxing.

The ballet's dancers were precise, evocative and unflagging in their energy. It was a tour de force for them, as the choreography is for Tharp. The way she brings together many elements and infuses them with invention and irresistible energy is a brilliant vision realized.

This performance will be repeated at 2 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $25.75 to $96.75. Details: 412-456-6666 or

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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