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Flash Review 1, 7-15: Lighten up!
Dance Theatre of Harlem Strains at Classical, Shines for Robbins

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- When will Arthur Mitchell realize that classical ballet is not what his company Dance Theatre of Harlem does best? Program B of DTH's run in the Lincoln Center Festival at the New York State Theater opened with George Balanchine's "Serenade," a ballet created in 1934 and his first in the U.S. But all that this technically tentative, dynamically aggressive performance proved was that Balanchine's choreographic brilliance outshone even a mediocre rendition of his ballet.

The opening tableau always elicits a gasp and often, applause: 18 women in diaphanous blue skirts, standing with their right hands thrust diagonally upward. The ballet unfolds to Tchaikovsky's music, always surprisingly. From intricate abstract patterning for the women it moves to a lyrical love duet, then a dream fantasy, then a visually startling finale, in which the lead woman is held aloft by three men, proceeding slowly along a diagonal beam of light from upstage right. The principals in this performance, Lenore Pavlakos, Akua Parker, Leanne Codrington, Kip Sturm, and James Washington, individually had fine moments, but the whole failed to satisfy.

Sir Frederick Ashton's "Thais," a duet set to Jules Massenet's familiar melody is all floating lifts and fluid transitions. Done here by muscular Duncan Cooper and delicate Melissa Morrissey, it needed greater dynamic finesse than these two young dancers could give it, but again, its ethereal choreographic beauty transcended. One vociferous audience member found it "Un-believable!"

What's wrong with the training and coaching of these strong, attractive dancers? In the classical works they dance mostly as if they're afraid of making a mistake. 21st-century classical ballet companies can't get away with tentative double pirouettes on point and brittle arms. These are strong, lithe, potentially wonderful dancers, but somehow they rarely reach their technical or expressive potentials in the classical repertoire. Strain replaces the magical effortlessness the work demands. They don't enjoy themselves, and neither do we.

By contrast, Robert Garland's "New Bach" and Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free" eloquently show the company's strengths. Garland sets his ten dancers loose, strutting with attitude in shiny, sheer, black costumes by Pamela Allen-Cummings. He inserts funky breaks: pelvic twists, and shoulder shimmies, as little asides into his ballet vocabulary. Tai Jimenez radiates charm, tipping seductively "en pointe" and the usually dutiful Sturm lets go in flashy double air turns and spacious leaps.

The opening movement, "Allegro Moderato" of Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor gets our attention: Jimenez backed by four men, then Sturm and four women tickle us with relentless buoyancy, highlighted by Roma Flowers's playful lighting. Self-assured strutting along diagonal paths animates the "Andante" section, and the bright and flashy finale "Allegro Assai" with its duets and snappy, quick-footed kinetic dialogue sweeps us to a happy finish. The four agile guys are Mark Burns, Antonio Douthit, Preston Dugger, and Claudio Sandoval, the high-stepping ladies, Paunika Jones, Akua Parker, Ebony Haswell, and Amy Johnson.

As the three sailors in "Fancy Free" Dugger, Ikolo Griffin, and Donald Williams, all gifted dance-actors, totally convinced us of their carefree braggadocio, looking for mischievous fun. Kellye A. Saunders and Caroline Rocher were the flirtatious foils for whose affections the guys compete by doing virtuosic solos: Dugger, a show-off young pup; Griffin, a brash risk-taker; and Williams, the been-around-the-block smoothie. After their brawling has scared off the two potential dates, Leanne Codrington came along to set off their testosterone alarms again.

This wonderful staging by Judith Fugate made more dramatic sense than either the American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet versions, because the cast believed the miming horseplay and did it with unselfconscious conviction. They danced with humor, authority, and technical aplomb, abetted by Oliver Smith's setting: a bar and street outside, Kermit Love's forties' costumes and hairdos, and Les Dickens's recreation of Ronald Bates's original lighting. Joseph E. Fields and Derrick Inouye conducted the evening's live music.

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