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Flash Review 2, 10-5: More than Horseplay
DTH Dances for Our Lives

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001 Darrah Carr

NEW YORK -- Dance's ability to resonate emotionally with the audience was proven again in Dance Theatre of Harlem's revival of Domy Reiter-Soffer's "Equus," seen in a mixed program Tuesday at City Center. This is a masterful, haunting work, based on the play by Peter Shaffer. The ballet tells the story of a 17-year-old stable boy who, for no apparent reason, blinds six horses. We see him undergoing psychiatric treatment and learn of his domestic conflicts, sexual confusion, and fascination with horses as romantic, mythical deities.

Ramon Thielen gave a compelling performance as the stable boy, striking a perfect balance between exaggeration and understatement. Reiter-Soffer did not shy away from exploring the complexities of sexual identity. We see Thielen caught between the eager embraces of his girlish lover, played by Bethania Gomes, and his recurring fantasies involving five extremely masculine horse-gods. Antonio Douthit, Ahmed Farouk, Preston Dugger, William Smith, and Mark Burns created incredibly convincing portrayals of the horses. Their prancing, stalking, and mane tossing was so real that I began to believe they really were half horse, half man; or, in this case, half horse, half god.

Given their duality, Thielen worships them, but also wants to conquer them. One moment he lies submissively at their feet, caressing their knees and legs. In the next moment, he mounts them, aggressively stabbing their eyes and creating an image of both dominance and destruction. The ballet is full of lasting images, at once terrible and beautiful. Reiter-Soffer is able to combine narrative and dance without relying on mime or literal gesture to convey ideas and emotions effectively.

It was virtually impossible to examine the final ballet on Tuesday's program, in its first performance this season, without the lens of September 11. Maybe it was the full-page ad for American Airlines that ran alongside the program copy. Maybe it was the program description of the dance as "a fusion and celebration of classical and jazz erupting into what is decidedly American." Maybe it was the fact that the ballet, Billy Wilson's "Concerto in F," was originally called"New York." Most likely, it was the scenery, albeit beautifully designed by Carl Michel, that fixated me. An enormous scrim painted with New York City skyscrapers dominated the stage and, for me, the dance.

The company performed beautifully in front of the scrim -- with energy, sensuality, and passion. Dressed in brightly-colored leotards, they exuded confidence and pride as they skitted nimbly over the notes of George Gershwin's music. But I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It certainly made me think, however. What is "decidedly American"? Skyscrapers? Symbols of controversial capitalism? Jazz? Symbols of soulful expression? Fusion? Athleticism? Pride? Or, perhaps, just this: the opportunity to question. Whatever the answers according to one's personal politics, it does seem helpful in this time of universal questioning to turn to art as both a source of investigation and inspiration.

The program also included "Viraa," choreographed by Laveen Naidu and previously reviewed here by Alicia Mosier. It is a large and lengthy work, divided into four movements, staged for fourteen dancers, and set to a pleasing score by Ernest Bloch. The choreography was also pleasing, but not particularly gripping. Nevertheless, in the midst of several rather bland arrangements of the corps, soloist Eric Underwood shone brightly. His skill is flawless. Moreover, he dances with such ease that his technique seems as natural as breath.

Lowel Smith's new "A Pas de Deux for Phrygia and Spartacus," also reviewed by Alicia, caught my attention, however. Melissa Morrissey and Duncan Cooper are perfectly matched and gave an impassioned portrayal of the legendary Thracian gladiator Spartacus and his beloved wife Phrygia. The choreography alternated between large, heart-sailing, blood-racing lifts and small, intimate gestures of exquisite tenderness -- for example, his hand on her cheek, her head on his chest.

Before September 11, I might have found Phrygia's anguish at her husband's imminent departure for war to be overly dramatic. I might have found Spartacus's wild, angry gestures with his knife to be overly literal. But the other morning, I saw a picture in the paper of an Atlanta reservist kissing his wife and kids goodbye. Suddenly, my perspective changed. The thin veil between art and life lifted. I realized not only how timeless the themes of love, war, and grief are, but also how timely the dance's portrayal of them is. Morrissey and Cooper's performances reaffirmed that now, perhaps more than ever, art can increase our empathy, encourage greater examination, and provide a recognizable outlet for our grief.

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