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Flash Review 2, 9-13: DTH Takes Control
From Wham-Bam Dancing to Tense Entanglements

By Terry Hollis
Copyright 2000 Terry Hollis

When it works, it works. Ballet has always had a funny way of harmonizing the elements of theater the way nothing else can. Maybe it's geometry, or synergy, or just plain old accomplishment but a well thought-out piece of work can demand and extract exactly what it wants out of the space and play with it until the piece is over. So cool to watch.... Dance Theatre of Harlem opened the third program of its City Center season last night with a mixed bill that went from wham-bam dancing to tense entanglements to costume drama. While every piece may not have lived up to itself, we were in the hands of some of the most capable performers around and they carved and molded the night just the way they wanted. By the time the final tableau of John Taras's "Firebird" was in place, you realized that these dancers took control of the whole evening.

"Twist," the first work of the night, definitely demanded your attention from the second the curtain went up. The bright pastel costumes that the dancers (barely) wore and the bright colored square of light that sat asymmetrically at the rear of the stage set this up as a visual experience (emphasis on visual). Dwight Rhoden keeps the dancers in constant motion, especially in the first section, where the lines of movement overlap and intersect each other so much that the effect is ultimately like a human kaleidoscope. Within this Mr. Rhoden has given the women quick foot work that works around and through the men. At times they attached themselves to their partners in strange geometric shapes and stopped in the middle of a phrase, only to be lowered to the floor or swung by their feet. The men are either frames for their women with an occasional thrust of the chest or high battement or dance in unison with each other (those passages usually concentrating on sticking a landing).The score, by Antonio Carlos Scott, droned on a little too much and worked against the energy the company poured into the work. There seemed to be some discrepancies among the men that a few more rehearsals might fix, and the constantly changing back drop provided a little sensory overload that kept the piece from coming together. I would love to see the work on a larger stage to get some distance from the onslaught of color and activity. Maybe then the spectacular dancing would help form the picture and not compete with it.

The balcony pas de deux from "Romeo and Juliet" has always been a stars vehicle. My companion mentioned having seen Nureyev and Fonteyn perform it in the Sixties, and the abandon they brought to the stage. As performed by Bethania Gomes and Duncan Cooper, the couple read more as brother and sister than consumed young lovers. This particular version (choreographed by Gabriella Taub-Darvash) takes place on the balcony and not under it, which places the duo on some pretty exalted ground. Mr. Cooper makes a very gallant Romeo. He doesn't dance him as the brash young show-off we are used to seeing, but is easy-going and secure. Ms. Gomes' s Juliet lacks a little in the passion department, but she does have the girl-next-door thing down and long legs that seem to go from weightless to tempered steel.

As far as controlling the space is concerned, nothing accomplished this as well as Michael Smuin's "Medea." The ballet is a sparse retelling of the story of Medea, who took the lives of her two children as revenge against an unfaithful husband. Lenore Pavlakos as Medea is a consummate ice queen whose rage is never too far from the surface. Mark Burns and Kevin Thomas are perfectly matched as her playfully virtuosic sons, who pay the price for their father's indiscretions. As Creusa, the "other woman," Caroline Rocher has a great time diverting Donald Williams's attention. Williams, a DTH principal dancer since 1983, stands at the moral center of the piece as his ideals unravel one by one -- first forsaking his sons and then betraying his queen. Using minimal elements to maximum effect, to Samuel Barber's "Medea," Mr. Smuin creates cuts in time and space that constantly make the story seem fragmented. The curtain falls between each short section so you catch each lesson as it happens, giving the whole thing the feeling of a serial. At one point the stage is split by light as Medea is with her sons and Jason is mourning his murdered mistress; the sense of separation is not in feet but miles. After Medea commits the final heinous act, she stands there in silence and smiles at the audience; this one moment tells you everything you need to know about the character and the piece.

So, I forget: Does everyone love "Firebird" or do they hate it? I hadn't seen this production in at least ten years and until last night I thought I was sick of it, but it's a good piece of candy to close out the night. The beautiful painted scrims that layer to form the background and the extravagant costumes by Geoffrey Holder pull you into this fantasy world where Kellye Saunders presides as the Firebird. Mr. Cooper as the Young Man and Leanne Codrington as the Princess are perfect in their roles, at home and at odds in the same step. As choreographed by Taras, to the Stravinsky score, the story is condensed into small dance passages that lead up to the young man's deliverance from those Creatures of Evil. Ms. Saunders is a restless, driven Firebird. With pointe work like a hummingbird and an incredibly sharp first solo she steps right into Stephanie Dabney's Capezios. At least now I know I love it....

The company will be controlling the City Center stage through September 17.

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