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Flash Review 1, 9-26: Of These, Hope
Phat Joy from Dance Theatre of Harlem

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

"What you're about to see could only happen in America." With those powerful words, Arthur Mitchell opened the season of his Dance Theatre of Harlem at City Center in New York City. Mitchell made his debut on that stage 52 years ago. The company he brought into being is indeed what he said it was last night: an ambassador of the United States to the whole world. In its mission of dance it is also, he said, a healing balm. With the four premieres it presented last night, all by alumni of the company, DTH gave strength and joy to all of us. The DTH dancers and choreographers come from all over the globe; better ambassadors of the spirit of the United States could hardly be imagined.

South African choreographer Laveen Naidu (who also heads DTH's Dancing Through Barriers community outreach program) led the evening off with "Viraa," a radiant composition for 14 dancers set to Ernest Bloch's Concerto Grosso No. 2. The piece is in many ways a tribute to Balanchine, for whom Mitchell danced in the New York City Ballet. Its clear, fine arrangements filled but never cluttered the stage space -- no small feat on City Center's small stage -- and there was a sophisticated musicality at work in the steps. Several Slavic-tinged elements came through, picking up subtle themes in Bloch's concerto. Naidu has a keen sense of his dancers' strengths. For the quick and alluring Andrea Long he crafted birdlike bourees and luscious upper body gestures; for the tall, elegant Eric Underwood he created high, quiet leaps and multiple turns that Underwood sailed through effortlessly. The corps moved nobly through the gates and trellises of the ballet's croise positions (despite a few lapses in timing). Occasional turned in positions and flexed hands, patterns in a fugue, and a few nicely borrowed images from "Agon" and "Apollo" revealed further legacies of Mitchell's mentor. "Viraa" is an admirable ballet; it's also the Sanskrit word for "brave."

Longtime DTH dancer and choreographer Lowell Smith presented "A Pas de Deux for Phrygia and Spartacus," set to the adagio from Aram Khachaturian's suite for "Spartacus." The title sums it up: the gladiator and his love dance together before he goes off to his last battle. A gauze tent in the corner and a glowing sun on the backdrop signal evening in the camp; later, the sun turns into a crescent moon, and Spartacus dances alone, haunted by thoughts of war. Duncan Cooper plunged powerfully through a series of difficult leaps, while Melissa Morrissey joined him for anguished, whirling partnering, then watched his dance of death from the edges of the stage. The piece itself was small-scale -- it seemed at times full of tricks and empty of drama -- but the emotion of the dancers was powerful.

DTH ballet master and former principal dancer Augustus van Heerden's "Passion of the Blood" is a far more ambitious effort. A dramatic ballet in six scenes, it tells the story of three families preparing for a wedding. The groom (Ahmed Farouk) and his mother (the majestic Camille Parsons) go to meet the bride (Kellye A. Saunders) and her father (James Washington) to arrange a marriage. Meanwhile, the bride's former lover, Rafael (Ramon Thielen), is getting ideas again about the bride -- and his wife (Caroline Rocher) and *her* mother (Lenore Pavlakos) are worried. The story ends as you'd imagine: Rafael and the Groom duke it out after the wedding reception, with tragic results.

With all those characters to account for, the ballet takes a while to get going. But dramatic details are strong, especially in the case of Parsons' Mother, who at one point fingers a fancy table covering in the bride's father's house with both envy and admiration (pretty nice family, eh?). Maxine Willi Klein's ingenious set (moveable white stucco walls with archways) and Roma Flowers's lighting (long passages in silhouette, then bright contrasts and shadings) provided a strong complement to the dissonant, piercing music (the Cello Concierto No. 2 of Jesus Villa-Rojo). Thanks in part to the dramatic gifts of all the dancers, the pas de deux between Rafael and his wife and, later, Rafael and the bride clearly revealed the different tensions of those relationships. (I wouldn't know where to end in talking about Saunders's many gifts, so I won't even begin.)

A dance at the wedding party, to the familiar music of Isaac Albeniz and Francesco Tarrega (played by guitarist Scott Kuney), was most distinguished by the gorgeous costumes of Pamela Allen-Cummings -- long, colorful dresses in silk and brocade. The ensemble dance didn't quite succeed in matching the joyful simplicity of the music. Van Heerden tried for a straightforward Petipa-style dance, while the music, though spare, is characterized by a rubato that challenges the clear rhythms his choreography wanted. Perhaps this passage will smooth out with more performances. The spectacular knife fight scene between the dashing Farouk and the smoky, dangerous Thielen -- performed before Klein's very effective projection of red branches behind a thin black scrim -- had me on the edge of my seat. (Did the dancers study "Rebel Without a Cause" in their rehearsals?) While some of the melodrama of this final scene brought titters from the audience, the ballet as a whole is a serious and a noble one. That a company of such good technicians is also so distinguished in a character ballet such as this is a fine achievement.

It's easy to summon a cynical chuckle at DTH's slogan, "Classically American" which now comes complete with trademark sign in press releases. (I don't know, it just sounds a little ... much.) But by the end of Robert Garland's "New Bach," I had fallen in love with the phrase. This ballet picks up where 1999's "Return" left off, with the loving livening-up of the danse d'ecole. In "Return," Garland used Aretha Franklin and James Brown to make his point about the present-day relevance of the classical style; here, he takes the even more daring step of setting his ballet to Bach. Much of "New Bach"'s effect comes from the sheer fun of it, and the ten dancers, led by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Donald Williams, sure did have some fun. They also found the quiet undercurrents of Bach's music in the Andante section, which brought a stream of dancers slowly across the stage and Williams to his eloquent best. Garland hears funk in the A-Minor Violin Concerto, sees a swivel in a tendu and a "vogue" in a port de bras. What he hears and sees in "New Bach" is joy, the deepest, phattest element in the human experience -- deeper even than the sorrow we have felt in the last two weeks, sorrow that many will know their whole lives long. We have joy because, even in sorrow, we have hope. Here, seeing American moves in a classical spirit, and classical moves in an American spirit, I rejoiced in what we have been and what we will be -- both in dance and in life.

At the end of the evening, ballet master Keith Saunders came onstage to announce (to the apparent surprise of the artistic director) that from now on, by the agreement of the board and the dancers, Dance Theatre of Harlem will be known as "Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem." Congratulations, Mr. Mitchell, and, as the audience sang with him and all the dancers, God bless America.

DTH continues its season at City Center through October 7. For more information, please visiit the City Center web site.

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