Having known Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence Orr for years, I can tell when he is really jazzed about a ballet the company is doing. In the case of Twyla Tharp's masterwork "In the Upper Room" -- which PBT performs Feb. 12-14 at the Benedum Center -- Orr practically beams at the mere mention of it.
That may have something to do with fond recollections of his former company, American Ballet Theatre, performing the ballet in 1988. Or it may just be that -- as with the other work on PBT's program, legendary choreographer Paul Taylor's "Company B" -- great ballets tend to have great longevity, and leave their mark on all who see them.
Either way, audiences will get to share in Orr's excitement about these two modern classics.
Tharp's "In the Upper Room" was choreographed in 1986, during the fitness craze that propelled Olivia Newton John's "Physical" to the top of the pop charts, and put the Jane Fonda Workout into the homes of millions. Tharp brought that theme of physical training into a nine-part, 40-minute ballet she described as "fierce, driving and relentless."
The ballet -- with vibrant red and gray costumes by fashion designer Norma Kamali -- pits two groups of dancers against each other. The "Stompers" are costumed in jumpsuits and sneakers, while "The Bomb Squad," or "Ballet Group," wear leotards and red pointe shoes. The action is a nonstop barrage that includes elements of tap, jazz, modern and ballet, all to a commissioned score by composer Philip Glass.
In its complexity and driving beat, Glass' music recalls his score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It's the perfect catalyst for what PBT répétiteur of the ballet Elaine Kudo -- a former Twyla Tharp Dance member -- calls "a very athletic ballet requiring huge amounts of stamina from its dancers."
Throw in a possible religious reference in the work's title, and Jennifer Tipton's magical lighting design that uses stage fog to make dancers seem to appear out of nowhere. No wonder the ballet is one of Tharp's best, and one Orr finds so irresistible.
No second fiddle, however, is Taylor's World War II-themed "Company B" (1991). The work is likewise among his best, and a prime example of why he is referred to as "the master of light and dark." The ballet has both, capturing the fervor of pre-war patriotism, and exploring the war's effects on soldiers and the nation at large during the dawning of the nuclear age.
The work in 10 sections is set to songs by the Andrews Sisters, including such favorites as "Rum and Coca-Cola" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)." Along with lighting design by Tipton, it mixes 1940s social dances, ballet and Taylor's signature brand of modern-dance movement to create lasting images of Taylor's own World War II memories.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performs Company B and In the Upper Room 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 12; 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 13; and 2 p.m. Sun., Feb. 14. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $20-88. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org