Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) presented their annual New York City season April 19, 20 and 21 at New York City Center. The performances marked the sixth season since the company’s much anticipated return after a seven-year hiatus. This new re-configured DTH, under the artistic direction of former company principal dancer Virginia Johnson, continues to mature into a new and important dance voice, while staying true to its founding principles.
The all too short three-day/four-performance season offered two premieres by Francesca Harper and resident choreographer Robert Garland; and one important company revival by Glen Tetley. In addition, works by Jose Limon, Diane McIntyre, and Darrell Grand Moltrie helped shape the season, while providing a glimpse into the future direction of the company. Throughout the season the fourteen-member ensemble displayed both artistic and technical growth, emerging as a formidable fledgling contemporary ballet company.
Darrell Grand Moltrie got the season off to a testosterone charged start with Equilibrium (Brotherhood). The male trio danced by Jordan Kindell, Dylan Santos, and Jorge Villarini successful created an aura of camaraderie and male bonding, with a healthy dash of unabashed competitive bravura. This resulted in a fun and befitting up-tempo opener. Vessels, his second work (performed on April 21st) repeated his signature blend of modern and ballet movement creating an energetic and cleanly crafted work for an ensemble cast of ten dancers.
In addition to Robert Garland’s new work Brahms Variations, which premiered on Friday April 21, he also offered two works on the opening night gala performance. Piece D’Occasion: High Above choreographed on the students from the Dance Theatre of Harlem School really received its New York premiere on Tuesday April 11th with Whoopi Goldberg on The View. Neo-Soul artist India Arie accompaniment by acoustic guitar performed live, and the work harkened back to DTH’s “glory days”.
The expansive, open port de bra and upper body deportment recalled the company’s own beginnings under Founder Arthur Mitchell. Garland’s staging effortlessly transformed Arie from the central figure to the vocal element of an ensemble work giving the evening’s youngest performer a chance to shine. Piece D’Occasion: High Above is a gentle reminder of the rite of passage for young performing artists; and the continued importance of an inclusive artistic environment that honors and respects diversity.
Garland’s Return has become the official program closer. Garland addressed the audience prior to the performance and credited the music to songs Arthur Mitchell sang/hummed in rehearsals. The ensemble work, which premiered in 1999, has held up well over time due to the blend of ballet, and urban bravado. Set to a soundtrack by R&B music royalty, the Queen and Godfather of Soul Aretha Franklin and James Brown, the work cleverly captures the joy and energy of the “Say it loud…” generation. Newcomer Nicholas Rose distinguished himself with exceptional ballon’ and clean technical proficiency.
Brahms Variations, Garland’s latest work, also credited Mitchell’s influence on the choreographer. Set to Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn Garland combines the Sun King Louis XIV with Garland most regal influence Arthur Mitchell. The mannered, courtly and polite ensemble ballet reminisced a bye gone era.
Garland has created a work well suited to the temperament of the dancers. The architectural design and overall stylistic interpretation is clearly neo-classic and serve as homage to George Balanchine; but Garland’s nuanced grace and subtle musicality again reminds us of DTH circa 1990’s. The dancers performed with an assuredness and ease that took the emphasis off the movement and placed it on the overarching choreographic design.
System by Francesca Harper took us on a far more edgy excursion into African- American social awareness. The work, described by Harper as abstract storytelling, used imagery produced from the movement and spatial relationships to create an abstract dance libretto. The non-stop driving score, String Quartet No. 1 by minimalism composer John Adams, aided Harper’s visceral journey from servitude to self-determination.
Here again the company devoured the choreography, which fluctuated from tight and contained to off-balance abandon. The dancers accepted the challenge, dancing with commitment and an understanding of purpose. Their (the dancer’s) focused approach speaks to Harper’s ability to transfer choreographic concept into a powerful movement statement.
The season did have an occasional artistic hiccup. The Black Swan pas de deux from the third act of Swan Lake received a valiant and sincere interpretation in a special performance on the opening night gala program. Two couples shared the work; Alison Stroming and Da’Von Doane danced the entrée and adagio, and Ingrid Silva and Francis Lawrence performed the variations and coda.
All danced with the required amount of verve and enthusiasm. It was the spaces we refer to as the transitions (the spaces between the movement that conveys the intent, the place where the real magic happens) that were unfulfilled. Unfortunately when artists are put in this position of over reach what is revealed are the flaws; and it this case it detracted from an otherwise promising season.
Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to provided dancers of color a nurturing professional ballet environment. Mitchell adapted a “we can do it all” attitude, which was reflected in choreographer Louis Johnson’s groundbreaking (and sorely missed) Forces Of Rhythm. Johnson’s work encompassed ballet, modern, jazz and African dance. Choreographer Johnson and director Mitchell made a profound and uniquely African-American statement that would help propel DTH into international acclaim.
Mitchell cleverly used dance as the bully pulpit to promote the talent, power and potential of his company as an agent for change. DTH broke down barriers, dispelled stereotypes, and the company quickly became a source of cultural pride for the culturally underserved Americans of African decent. Performances included exotic offerings by Geoffrey Holder, ballet classics by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa, neoclassic works by George Balanchine, and contemporary ballets by Billy Wilson, John Butler, Talley Beatty, Louis Johnson, Glen Tetley and Arthur Mitchell.
The highlight of the Saturday evening performance was a tribute to the late choreographer Glen Tetley. Tetley had contributed four works to the DTH repertoire, and in a special tribute three ballets were presented. A succinct excerpt from Voluntaries performed by guest artists Allisyn Hsieh Caro and Carl Coomer from Texas Ballet Theater opened the tribute. Voluntaries (choreographed in 1973 after the death of his friend and colleague John Cranko) is Tetley most recognizable work; and its ethereal quality reminds us of the transcendental fragility of life.
Former DTH principal/guest artist Carolina Rocher performed a solo from Tetley’s Greening with focused introspection. The company closed the tribute with a new production of Dialogues. The work displayed the company’s strength in the contemporary ballet style. Like DTH’s very successful production of Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven the dancers attacked Tetley’s modern/ballet movement style with an appealing ferocity.
What remains extremely alarming is the continued ephemeral nature of dance, which extends beyond the dancer to include the shelf life of choreography after the death of the creative artist. Like so many artists who don’t have foundations to perpetuate their legacy, artists like Talley Beatty, Louis Johnson, John Cranko and Glen Tetley have sadly slipped into artistic obscurity. We applaud DTH, the Tetley tribute keeps his voice and vision alive for the next generation of dancers and dance makers.
The sixth season of Dance Theatre of Harlem became a turning point. The company approached this primarily contemporary ballet season with an artistic zeal and technical competence worthy of the DTH moniker. It is unfortunate we still live in an era where black ballet dancers are the exception, not the accepted. While an unwitting public continues to confuse inclusiveness with tokenism only compounds and perpetuates the injustice. We all understand change can be a slow and arduous journey, so it is reassuring that Dance Theatre of Harlem remains an agent for change.
In Photo: 1. Ingrid Silva 2. Jordan Kindell, Dylan Santos and Jorge Andrés Villarini, 3. Alison Stroming 4. Chyrstyn Fentroy and Da’Von Doane with Company 5. Ingrid Silva, Dylan Santos and Choong Hoon Lee 6. Jorge Villarini and Chyrstyn Fentroy
Photo By: 1,2,5 Rachel Neville 3.Renata Pavam 4,6. Nanette Melville