By Walter Rutledge
The Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, now also known as Dance Theatre of Harlem II, made their New York début on February 7 at the Joyce Theater. The company offered four performances on February 7 at 7:30pm, February 9 at 8pm, and Saturday February 11 at 2pm and 8pm. These were the first New York performances under the Dance Theatre of Harlem moniker since 2004, when the company was forced to go on an indefinite “hiatus”.
The company presented a varied program of four works by emerging, established and renowned choreographers. The ballets ranged from contemporary to neo-classical, showcasing the talented company of sixteen dancers. The performances gave us a glimpse into what might become the nucleus of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is scheduled to return in 2013.
David Fernandez’s Six Piano Pieces (Harlem Style) began the program. Set to the music of Moritz Moszkowski, and performed live by piano soloist Melody Fader, it was an elegant opening work. The relaxed feel of the ballet was reflexed throughout, and was most notable in the movement, costumes and the dancer’s attack.
The ballet was commissioned by Dance Theatre of Harlem as part of Harlem Dance Works 2.0, a choreographer’s laboratory designed to develop works for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Fernandez’s musicality and overall choreographic approach worked well for the Dance Theatre of Harlem II performers. This light-hearted work inadvertently showcased the men more than the women.
Anthony Savoy’s clean jumps, effortless ballon and unencumbered line were refreshing to watch. While Samuel Wilson’s consistent pirouettes, which slowed before “descending” to fourth position had a noticeable glimmer of bravura. And David Kim danced with a fluent movement quality that is very satisfying.
In the Mirror Of Her Mind, choreographed by Christopher Huggins, is a work of introspection and emotional sobriety. DaVon Doane, Ashley Murphy, Anthony Savoy and Samuel Wilson performed it with great aplomb and commitment. The work is about the relationships between Murphy and her male counterparts, which was primarily expressed through effortless partnering that awed and excited the audience.
The spontaneous lifts, breathtaking throws and flawless turns conjured images from a bye-gone (and truly missed) era in ballet. Doane, Savoy and Wilson approached the partnering with confidence and assuredness, which only heighten the artistic tension. Murphy was superb; she was a diamond in a three prong platinum setting.
The work felt more like an excerpt than a complete ballet, leaving the audience curious. There wasn’t enough character development to establish who these men were or what was their relationship to Murphy. Were they her brothers? Was one a father? Or possibly they could have been former lovers. We will never know.
If I had to describe the work in non-dance terms it was like sex without foreplay or afterglow. In other words we weren’t kissed first and didn’t smoke a cigarette afterwards, it was more about the physical act. Sometimes that is not a bad thing; maybe this work was about just creating that kinesthetic tingle. The audience certainly responded to “that tingle”, In The Mirror Of Her Mind was the best received work of the evening.
The George Balanchine ballet Glinka Pas de Trois was a smart choice for the repertoire. The work has not been seen in some time, which allowed it to be judged on the merits of the performers. This stylish, yet relatively short work developed the individual personalities through deportment first, and then quickly showcased the technical talents of each artist. It was originally choreographed for three of New York City Ballet’s most accomplished performers, Melissa Hayden, Patricia Wilde and André Eglevsky and premiered on March 1, 1955. In a fitting tribute to Eglevsky, his daughter Marina restaged the ballet, which was performed by DaVon Doane, Flavia Garcia and Ashley Murphy.
The neo classic style is part of the legacy of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Company founder Arthur Mitchell joined Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in 1955 and became a principal dancer in 1956. He was the only African American in the company even past his departure in 1966. In fact New York City Ballet did not hire another Black dancer until 1970, ironically this is the same year the Dance Theatre of Harlem debuted.
As with much of Balanchine’s choreography the technical challenges are just the artistic and structural underpinning. This work was designed to showcase the totality of the performers; and that required presence, technical ability, grace and élan. To that end Murphy faired the best. Her speed, technical prowess, confident stage persona and lithe body came closest to the Balanchine esthetic.
En Avant, a film by Gabrielle Lamb, was a prelude to the final work of the evening and in many respects expressed the philosophy of Dance Theatre of Harlem. We saw the cultural rainbow of these dancers, and heard in their own words their aspirations and dreams. The film was a visual biography of this new company as well as a nostalgic look at the origins of the organization.
In the book The Art of Making Dances author Doris Humphrey shares her art and experiences as a teacher and dance maker. In chapter 18 she has created a dance maker’s checklist, which I call her eleven choreographic commandments (one more than what was given to Moses). According to Humphrey the fifth commandment simply, and succinctly states, “All dances are too long”.
Contested Space by Donald Byrd opened with a solo danced with great physical intensity and nuance by Jehbreal Jackson, and was followed by an ensemble movement for ten dancers. The opening movement, with its driving score by Amon Tobin was visually stunning. The choreography was divided on stage into three groups- men, women and a soloist.
Each group was challenged with polyrhythmic movements, which embodied the principles of Hanya Holmes, and the indigenous movement qualities of West Africa. Steely and articulate lower body movement was brilliantly set against a contrasting freewheeling and well-punctuated upper torso that kept the audience on the edge of your seats. Soloist DaVon Doane danced with the required zeal and abandoned, while the ensemble floated and flew through the movement at a juggernaut pace.
The impressive opening was then followed by a series of smaller cast sections consisting primarily of duets and solos with an occasional return to the opening resplendence. By the final coda choreographer Byrd had violated Humphrey’s fifth commandment. This was unfortunate, due to the commitment of the dancers and the promise of the introductory sections. Some editing would result in a more powerful work.
Dance Theatre of Harlem II performed with the dedication of a promising young company. The dancers admirably did what dancers do; perform to the best of their ability in order to fulfill the vision of the dancer makers. The performances also reinforced the belief that choreography is harder than dancing. If this is an indication of what is to come, 2013 promises to be a good year for Dance Theatre of Harlem.
In Photo: 1) DaVon Doane and company 2) Frederick Davis and Danielle Thomas 3) Ashley Murphy and DaVon Doane 4) Alexandra Jacob Wilson and Samuel Wilson
Photos by: 1 &4) Rachel Neville 2&3) Judy Tyrus