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Flash Review 1, 9-7: Dance Theatre of America
DTH's Thrilling Thirties

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

The thirties can be a truly fertile time in anyone's life. Past the growing pains of your teens and the cockiness of your "I know everything" twenties, you can find yourself confident in your achievements, but at the same time willing to risk turning down unknown alleys. Dance Theatre of Harlem, celebrating its 31st season, finds itself in just such a position: Confident in its rich heritage and, in fact, in its ability to reach back much further than 30 years to accurately, spiritedly represent the rich heritage of ballet. And, at the same time, not only willing to take on new kinds of ballet hybrids, but with the maturity and technique to present those nouveau works with aplomb. All this was evident in the mixed program with which DTH opened its New York season last night at City Center.

Let's start with "Creole Giselle," act II of which was presented last night, in the first of four DTH programs on view through September 17. And in terms of DTH's ability to tap into tradition, we've got to start with Frederic Franklin, still moving audiences nearly seventy years after he made his debut at the Casino de Paris in 1931. This "Giselle," while owing the "Creole" to a scenario by DTH director Arthur Mitchell and Carl Michel, as well as Michel's evocative scenery and costumes, is faithful to the Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot 1841 original, and set to the same Adolphe Adam music. But the staging and direction is all Franklin's.

In anyone's book -- and at the moment, I'm consulting Chujoy/Manchester's "Dance Encyclopedia," Balanchine/Mason's "Stories of the Great Ballets," and Terry's "Ballet Guide" -- Franklin is one of the leading Albrechts of the twentieth century. And his connection with this ballet shows in the exact articulation of the dancers in the mime sections and, I think, in Kip Sturm's unusually invested portrayal of Albrecht, who here is named Albert Monet-Cloutier. (Having been moved to tears by her already in Michael Smuin's "Song for Dead Warriors," I suspect that the magical haunting quality of Kellye A. Saunders's Giselle is all her own. Ditto the flawless esprit (es-willie?) of the corps, particularly their immaculate chugs in arabesque.)

The nut of the story here, for those of you that don't know, is that the frail-hearted Giselle (so frail-hearted that dancing, her passion, also gives her heart palpitations) has fallen for Albrecht, a count disguised as a peasant. When Albrecht's royal fiancee shows up unexpectedly, he shows his blue-blood and spurns Giselle. She goes nuts and dies. Cut to the second act, where a repentant Albrecht is praying at Giselle's grave. Her spirit shows up, but the bad news is so do those of a bevy of other spurned virgins, whose Queen, Myrta, is eternally pissed, which she vents by forcing any man who strays into their neck of the woods to dance himself to death. In Albrecht's case, Giselle is ultimately able to circumvent this with a couple of stalling tactics: Giving Albrecht sanctuary at her grave, and dancing with him herself. Finally, when he's on the precipice of death, the sun rises, the wilis retreat, Albrecht is saved, and he and Giselle part forever.

The only down side last night is that we only saw the second act. So I don't think people who didn't already know this ballet -- and my suspicion is there were more than a few in the theater last night -- would get the full gravity of the second act. I.e., where in the first act it was Giselle who was frail and ultimately fell, in the second she's the strong one, protecting the vulnerable Albrecht. Her love is that pure -- and it ultimately redeems his heart (to say nothing of his life) as well.

The plus side is that what we did get -- for the first time I'd seen it in an admittedly paltry four viewings of the ballet -- was a clear idea, through pantomime, of what the group dynamics were here. This is Franklin's teaching, obviously, but owes not a little to the execution of the players. Lenore Pavlakos, whose Myrta was danced a bit too rote sprightly for me (as opposed to cold as ice or vengeful), showed her strength in the pantomime: to command Albrecht to keep dancing when he prays to be able to stop, she doesn't just point at the floor and shake her head, but seems to give him specific instructions of the demanding dance he's going to do and, as my dancer companion pointed out, tell him in no uncertain terms that he will not get out of here alive. As well -- also noted by my dancer companion -- the subtle breaking of her branch when Giselle harbors Albrecht at her gravestone said volumes.

Sturm's dance to death was the first one of these I've believed in four Albrechts. Julio Bocca's dance, with American Ballet Theatre, was just the usual assemblage of male bravura, and even somewhat restrained, so that I couldn't see he'd done anything that would push a man to the precipice. With other portrayals I've seen, one moment they're dancing vigorously and then suddenly they're near-death. Sturm worked up to his collapse slowly. With his first variation, you got a sense that, indeed, he was not entirely in command of his limbs, so we were not totally surprised when, suddenly -- in a way to his own surprise -- he fell. And as Myrta wore him down, Sturm's indications of this went beyond clasping his heart, tho he did that. We saw it in his sweat, in the fear in his eyes, in the slowly, so slowly increasing panting in his gut. Each time he fell, he really seemed nearer death. Thus making more obvious the cruciality of Saunders's timely entrances.

Saunders, ethereal in variations -- and, especially, in the initiation turns in which we see Giselle make the transition from burdened earthling to floating phantom -- was not always successfully so when being partnered. But, having said that, more than any other Giselle I've scene so far -- Alessandra Ferri with ABT, Diana Vishneva with the Kirov, and Nina Ananiashvili with the Bolshoi -- I got a clear sense of her protective impulses towards Albrecht/Monet-Cloutier. I got it in the way she stroked the arm of the prostrate Strum, pointing it to the Heavens, as if to say, daylight will be here soon, and so will your salvation; and in the way, after the other wilis have disappeared and she is about to disappear behind her gravestone for the last time, she gently touches his face with her hands, turns his head down, and then disappears. Saunders always projects, anyway, a knowledge of tragic dimensions deeper than this world. And she definitely uses that here, to great effect; she had Sturm and me crying!

As for Caroline Rocher's Sulma and Tanya Wideman's Moyna, they had me quavering, especially Rocher. Unlike Pavlakos's Myrta, Rocher's portrayal of her assistant conveyed both beauty and the icey edge beneath it. Ethereally lovely as she was, I had no doubt that Rocher would shed no tears from her downcast eyes after she'd danced me to death.

The risk factor on this evening came in the form of "South African Suite," in the expanded version which premiered in March 1999. Choreographed by Augustus Van Heerden, Laveen Naidu, and Mitchell, this has got to be the most successful merging of western ballet and African folk dance positions I've ever seen! There's a dance called "Lambarena," by Val Caniparoli, which mixes African and western ballet phrases to a musical palette mixing Bach and traditional African music. Caniparoli, more or less, sets ballet moves to the African music, and African shimmies to the Bach. I love that ballet, don't get me wrong, but when it comes to melding, Caniparoli can't hold a candle to what this choreographic team has created on these dancers. I tried to distinguish when they were doing what, and, just as I was about to classify a set of steps as African, the women rose on pointe! Just as their arms seemed to shake, bent at the elbows, the next second they were fully extended, their hands limp. And it all seemed seamless -- not just, I think, due to the choreographers, but also the dancers. (Side note: How strange that it should be a ballet company, DTH, which is uninterested in fancy superfluous pyrotechnics, but lingers over every step, displaying it at full flower, while the putatively modern company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, races through every ballet as if there's no tomorrow. Here it's the ballet company that's dancing from its heart, the modern, for the most part, from its feet!)

Oh, and while we're on the dancers, let's get back to that Giselle corps, whose members last night were: Bethania Gomes, Paunika Jones, Lynda Sing, Raintree Halpern, Christiane Cristo, Rejane Duarte, Amy Johnson, Ebony Haswell, Akua Parker, Jarina Carvalho, Dionne Figgins, Camille Parson, Amanda Fitzgerald, Erika Woodward, Tiffany Glenn, and Melissa Morrissey.

Rounding out DTH's Program A is the premiere of van Heerden's "Memento Mori," a death parable (replete with solitary death figure) which I found to be cliche and melodramatic; yes, a man, Sturm, is taken by Death and retreats into a narrowing square of light in the black curtain upstage, enters it, only to have it close and then suddenly the whole stage be bathed in -- wait for it -- white light!

Music last night was provided by the energetic Dance Theatre of Harlem Orchestra, cleanly conducted by Joseph E. Fields, particular in "Creole Giselle," and by the Soweto String Quartet with percussion by Samir Chatterjee and Donald Eaton.

For more on the DTH City Center season and other tour info, visit the DTH web site.

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