First of all, it was immensely thrilling to have the Chrysler Hall sold out. Secondly, it was thrilling to know that it was because of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a brilliant ballet company that has not only prioritized diversity, but also championed community outreach. Though the DTH school has consistently been in operation since Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded it in 1969, the performing company that premiered in 1971 was put on hiatus in 2004 for financial reasons. Back on the stage less than a decade later, the company may be smaller in number (18 company members as opposed to the 44 in 2004), but they have definite power and promise.
[images | David Polston Freelance]
Before the dancing began Saturday night, a special tribute was given to Lorraine Graves, who was a Principal Dancer with the company for close to 17 years. Ms. Graves was born and raised in Norfolk, and after her performing career with DTH, she returned to this area. She currently teaches at the Governor’s School for the Arts, Todd Rosenlieb Dance, and is on the guest faculty for the Virginia School of the Arts, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was wonderful to have her honored at the performance. I had the opportunity to take her master classes when I was in high school, and I always looked forward to a chance to study with her.
The show launched with “Gloria,” a piece choreographed in 2012 by Robert Garland, a former DTH company member and resident choreographer. Set to Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” the dancers performed this piece with live accompaniment for the first time at Chrysler Hall, which the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Virginia Chorale performed wonderfully. Comprised of six sections, “Gloria” wove through many layers of emotion and energy. There were various groupings of dancers in each section, and the piece was a continuous blend of classical and contemporary movements; they were often reminiscent of the Balanchine style, with dramatic angles, sharp direction changes, and quickness. The piece also incorporated young student dancers, who were a definite hit with the audience. The program stated that Mr. Garland created it to be a tribute to Harlem’s cultural legacy; the mix of generations, technical styles, and energies certainly helped accomplish that.
The second ballet was “Far but Close”- a combination of choreography by John Alleyne, commissioned music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, and text by spoken word artist Daniel Beaty. The music, words, and movements intermingled to tell a love story; not the love story often presented on stage perhaps, but maybe one that most people can relate to. It began with boy meeting girl (as love stories often do), but in this case, the girl, in the midst of overcoming past emotional hurt, was afraid to love or be loved. “Far but Close” explores the layers of love; the giving and accepting of love, and the letting go of fear. The piece was performed by two women and two men, which the program explained to be the couple and their alter egos. The choreography did not clearly present which dancers were the former or the latter; I found this both frustrating and intriguing. This choreography had a greater fluidity and a sultry depth to the movements than the previous on the program; the pulse of the text and music together provided a unique foundation for the timing of the steps. Though the final music had a mix of tones that were uncomfortably unharmonious, the overall effect of the piece was quite moving, and thought provoking.
The show finished with another of Mr. Garland’s creations, “Return,” from 1999. Also in sections, this piece featured classic songs by James Brown, Alfred Ellis, Aretha Franklin, and Carolyn Franklin. “Return” had a lively, jovial personality, with humor (and even intentional silliness) sprinkled throughout. It was a mix of steps as purely classical as first arabesque, echappes, and renverses, and as contemporary as contractions, body rolls, and hip shimmies (there was even a dance line). The piece was definitely fun, and it successfully showcased the dancers’ skill and versatility.
Dance Theatre of Harlem certainly has the talent and strength to once again be a solid presence in the ballet world. Though a bit of fine tuning may be necessary (there were a few instances of off timing and lack of unison), all of the pieces of the puzzle are there. The lines and technique of the dancers are wonderful; the choreography is unique and engaging; and the dancers truly perform, not just execute steps. This company proved that they are masters of multiple styles, and can successfully mesh the classical and contemporary; they are deeply rooted in the ballet tradition, yet open to the artistic freedom of modern movement.
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