"Six Piano Pieces (Harlem Style)," "In the Mirror of her Mind," "Glinka pas de trois," "En Avant," "Contested Space"
Dance Theatre of Harlem II
The Joyce Theater
February 9, 2012
New York, NY
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2012 by Carol Pardo
If good will were all, Dance Theatre of Harlem would be thriving. But there must also be money and that’s where the company came to grief. Founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969 in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., DTH, in debt and overwhelmed, went "on hiatus" in 2004 though the company school stayed in business. There was also a small touring group, made up of students from the school, the Dance Theater of Harlem Ensemble now known as DTH II. And yes, it felt odd to be watching DTH II when there is no DTH I. Money permitting, that should change; auditions began last month for the first company whose New York debut is planned for April 2013.
The evening started off on the right note, both literally and figuratively with "Six Piano Pieces (Harlem Style)" accompanied by live music. Live accompaniment, here Melody Fader at the piano, obliges dancers and audience to remain alert, to pay close attention, upping the buzz in the theater, and giving serendipity a chance. The rest of the program relied on recorded music, buttressed by the memory of the real thing.
The ballet, by David Fernandez, based in New York by way of the Giordano company in Chicago, opens with its cast of eight (half the company) in a semi-circle, one knee bent, the women leaning forward on point, about to issue a challenge or take one up. Dressed in sparkling or colorful party clothes, they’re ready to move, with camaraderie and attitude. But the attitude dissipated and "Six Piano Pieces (Harlem Style)" became merely a vehicle to introduce the dancers, functional, useful, but bland when that opening image had promised more spice.
"In the Mirror of Her Mind" opens with Alexandra Jacob Wilson seemingly asleep on the floor of the stage. She is watched by Frederick Davis, Jehbreal Jackson and David Kim. The triangular space they define is close unto claustrophobic, and the intensity of their gaze creepy. What follows is a dance in a dream state in which the woman throws herself at the men, around their hips, shoulders, or necks, or is manipulated by them. The go for broke physicality of it is striking. (The choreographer, Christopher Huggins, is a former Ailey dancer, home of go for broke physical lushness.) Striking too are the courage and mutual trust of the performers. But the woman is never allowed an independent moment. One can only hope that she wakes a free agent, ready, willing and able to take control of her own space and her own destiny.
If there was a hook to lure ballet lovers to the Joyce, it was Balanchine’s "Glinka Pas de Trois." Balanchine’s works are fundamental to DTH’s history and—one hopes—to its future. Created in 1955, the ballet hasn’t been seen in New York since 1994. At this performance, the dancers were Samuel Wilson, an attentive partner to Stephanie Williams and Ashley Murphy. Williams, strong and forthright, shares those qualities with the women of the original cast, Melissa Hayden and Patricia Wilde. Murphy, of the Audrey Hepburn neck, added delicacy and legato phrasing to the trio. Murphy seems the most ready to make the jump from dancer to ballerina should DTH--without the numeral--be revived. She draws the eye even when standing still. She’s got the poise for the position and she’s the only dancer for whom the stage of the Joyce seemed too small.
The second half of the evening opened with a short film, "En Avant," by Gabrielle Lamb. In it, comments by today’s dancers were interwoven with those of Virginia Johnson, now the director of DTH, but also its leading ballerina during the company’s glory days. The dancers’ driving passion for dancing comes across fervently. So, too, more quietly and insidiously, do the impediments to fulfilling that desire because these dancers are black.
The evening ended with Donald Byrd’s interminable "Contested Space" one of those attempts to bring together modern dance and ballet. It began with an extended demonstration of floor work and included a duet in which a fish dive, straight out of "The Sleeping Beauty" devolved into a split on the floor and ended with the woman doing an arabesque penché in which her head landed in her partner’s groin.
To thrive, a company needs good will and money. But it also needs a vision and a repertory that expresses that vision. DTH has the good will and the vision since it was founded. The necessary monies are being gathered. But the repertory is not yet carrying its weight.