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Flash Review 2, 9-29: Take Me Down
to FunkyBalletAfrican Town
DTH Tours the World in 'Apollo' Program
By Susan Yung
Copyright 2001 Susan Yung
NEW YORK -- Dance Theatre of Harlem's
"Apollo Show" program, seen Wednesday, is so nicknamed as it's a City Center reprise
of the same bill which met with great popular acclaim at the Apollo in June. Comprising
works by Arthur Mitchell, Augustus Van Heerden, Laveen Naidu, Geoffrey Holder,
and Robert Garland, the program was chock full with enough crowd-pleasing theatrics,
catchy music, and some solid dance to indisputably sweep any talent show in town.
The 1999 "South African Suite," in
eight movements (choreographed by Augustus Van Heerden, Laveen Naidu, and Mitchell)
was set to joyous, jangly music by the Soweto String Quartet and Arthur Mitchell
(though it's not made clear who contributed what), performed live by the ensemble
on a platform which elevated the musicians above stage level, and any visual distraction
to the audience. I can't say whether the music is representative of music from
Soweto, but it reminded me of bluegrass grounded with lots of African percussion
-- the best of both worlds. Long-limbed Caroline Rocher began the dancing with
langorous poses in silhouette, showing a highly refined aesthetic of stretching
the legs so straight while sitting in second that her calves and heels raised
off the floor, and walking on toe (in pointe shoes) and on her hands to recall
the elegance of a giraffe.
Other songs featured partnering with
multiple turns, or infectiously energetic group sequences which intermixed African
dance segments with ballet, which tended toward the rudimentary. While not exactly
natural bedfellows in my mind, after a while the two vocabularies seemed to catalyze
one another, while at other times the one offered relief from the other. With
the exception of a bunch of sloppy double tours en l'air by the men, the handsome
company showed off in ballet sections. Camille Parson demonstrated that ballet
dancers are indeed capable of lighting up a phrase of African dance when invited,
combining outrageous, loose-torsoed phrases with controlled, epic battements.
The men fared rather less well as warriors; there seemed to be only so much they
could do with thrusting fists and stamping; perhaps the looming threat of real
war sapped this section's basic natural appeal.
"Dougla,"Geoffrey Holder's showcase
(Holder is credited with choreography, costumes and music, that's all) has not
aged a bit since its premiere in 1974. An exercise in sheer style and attitude,
it is loosely arranged around a couple's wedding -- a good excuse for some old-fashioned
pageantry and ritual. To a percussion-based score with an underlying bass drum
heartbeat, lines of women and men both clad in voluminous white skirts and red
pom-pommed cock's combs strutted across the stage, flicking their heads to give
us a royal glare, or wagging their fingers. Even the curtain call was programmed
down to the robotic clapping of the cast, who shimmied their heads while bowing.
Though the choreography tended toward the rhythmic stride or dramatic gesture,
"Dougla" could easily be seen on a Broadway stage, and would no doubt please any
crowd that happened in.
Robert Garland's "Return," to tunes
by James Brown and Aretha, among others, was the most choreographically satisfying
piece of the evening, with ballet teaming up with funk. The music called for sections
of strutting funkiness (excuse me while I grope for funk terminology), but it
was surprising how rhythmically complex some of the ballet sections were. And
how initially strange it was to watch basic, conservative ballet steps done to
a repeated howl of "baby, baby," yet which seemed perfectly okay the second time
around. Paunika Jones and Donald Williams stood out for their excellent funk and
ballet techniques and their generous senses of humor. In "Return," Garland succeeded
in blending theatrical, funny touches with formally sound, meaty choreography,
and the fine dancers -- and hence, the audience -- seemed to find a little extra
merit in this combination.
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