DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM
April 19, 2019
Dance Theatre of Harlem – a beloved dance company with an important history -- is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Founded by Arthur Mitchell, once a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who passed away just last year, and his mentor Karel Shook, DTH was formed with an explicit mission: to showcase black ballet dancers and to be “a beacon of hope for the youth in the underprivileged neighborhood where Mitchell grew up.” Throughout its history, DTH has more than succeeded on both counts, and the question now is, “Where is DTH headed?”
Artistic Director Virginia Johnson has kept some DTH traditions, while expanding the repertory towards more contemporary ballet. In Nyman String Quartet #2 (2019), longtime resident company choreographer Robert Garland created a playful opener where dancers grooved in unison in simple patterns, at times breaking out into solos with fierce petit allegros and other short balletic sequences (including quotes from Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco). The dancers smoothly and casually transitioned from balletic to “current” and back, dressed in gendered blue gym shorts and pink short dresses by Pamela Allen-Cummings, setting a celebratory tone of the evening.
This would have worked better if it had not been followed on the program by Anabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Balamouk (2018) to percussive music by Les Yeux Noirs, Lisa Gerrard, and Rene Aubrey. A similar blend of fierce ballet technique (double fouette turns out of nowhere) and more contemporary moves, ironically limited rather than expanded our sense of what these dancers can really do. The fact that the fabulous Da’Von Doane was featured in both doesn’t help.
Ochoa’s works are always beautifully crafted, she understands pacing, building, and effect of indelible imagery: Balamouk ends with the fiery Ingrid Silva in the corner, boureeing on the tips of her toes like the Dying Swan, as she had done earlier, before being swept up into a series of lifts. But this time she’s abandoned by the group, which morphs and moves to exit in the opposite direction. It’s still unclear what this dance and the dancers were really about – it can’t just be that they’re capable of cool – we already knew that.
A montage film about Arthur Mitchell, featuring young dancers of the DTH school made clear the incontrovertible impact of his vision. A “re-imagined version” of his ballet Tones (1971), titled Tones II (2019), followed the film. Mitchell personally coached the current dancers in the work, a fact that cannot be underestimated in terms of its value for DTH, its dancers and their shared history. Mitchell was most demanding of them in terms of ballet: clear, clean balletic technique, line, and partnering required. They danced in silver unitards that don’t hide anything (a 1970s staple), with a starry sky in the background, to the music of Cuban composer Tania Leon. A lovely central pas de deux elevated the whole evening. But questions lingered… the dancers seemed uncomfortable at times. I missed seeing the DTH dancers slay some Balanchine, or even a 19th century excerpt. Why only on opening night?
Few finales can top Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla (1974), a spellbinding hybrid work with gorgeous costumes, choreography AND music by Holder himself. Holder’s roots in Trinidad (and perhaps his time in Hollywood) gave the impetus for creating a ballet that celebrates life, dance and the uplifting and powerful effects of syncretic art – in this case African and East Indian (Dougla) culture. Holder deftly and beautifully blended ballet with his memories of African and East Indian dance and rituals into a whole that celebrated what can happen when “people can come together.” May it continue to be so, even in our cynical and divisive times.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Nicole Duffy Robertson