Onward, Together: Dance Theatre of Harlem Returns to City Center

Performed Saturday April 9, 2016
Dance Theatre of Harlem
New York City Center
New York, NY

 

It’s important to give credit where credit is due, so it’s time to start talking about Dance Theatre of Harlem. For nearly 40 years, the company has provided an artistic home and international platform for outstanding ballet dancers of color. And while organizational hardship is still a recent memory (financial troubles caused the professional company to go on hiatus from 2004 to 2013), Dance Theatre of Harlem has resurged in the past three years. Having conquered intense national tours with a handful of newer works in their repertoire, the DTH dancers returned to New York City Center this weekend to show that uptown’s prowess on pointe is still alive.

Of the four works performed, three were choreographed by women, as part of Artistic Director Virginia Johnson’s new “Women Who Move Us” initiative: Elena Kunikova, a former ballerina with the Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet; Helen Pickett, the resident choreographer for Atlanta Ballet known for her long career with William Forsythe’s troupe; and Diane McIntyre, one of the dance field’s living legends. Given the ballet world’s quizzical systemic reluctance to commission female choreographers (New York City Ballet received a hearty pat on the back for awarding two (out of eight) commissions to women in the 2016-17 season, their first such commissions since 2011), Dance Theatre of Harlem is once again leading the push to diversify the field.

And so, Ms. Kunikova’s Divertimento cut right to the chase. The curtain rose on three brown ballerinas in elegant white tutus. The set, swathed in billowing white drapery, left little room for confusion – this was Ballet, with a capital “B.” Though the opening movement was predictable – a symmetrical arrangement of unison and canons – the hints of pedanticism soon abated. Chyrstyn Fentroy stole the show with her impeccable variations, while Da’Von Doane led the trio of men through a series of explosive jumps. Set to Mikhail Glinka’s Divertimento Brilliante, Kunikova’s work plays with several archetypes nestled inside the pervasive tradition of the “white ballet”: the sylph, the ingénue, the aristocrat. Though the characterizations were loose, the effect was undeniably clear. Here, black bodies subvert historical expectations and, with a final fling of their prop bouquets, quite literally throw precedent aside.

Ms. Pickett’s When Love likewise takes its structure from a foundational ballet form, the pas de deux. Dancers Stephanie Rae Williams and Da’Von Doane carefully toe the line between storytelling and abstraction, a reflection of the accompanying soundtrack, Philip Glass’s “Knee 5” from Einstein on the Beach, that imagines a scene between two lovers. Added to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s repertory in 2012 as part of the Harlem Dance Works 2.0 initiative, this is the type of ballet that will improve with age, as the dancers find more places to take risks within Pickett’s athletic, yet fluid, choreography.

It’s comforting to see Dance Theatre of Harlem programming doing more than paying lip service to the contributions of women of color in dance. At Saturday’s performance, the group brought together several generations of ballerinas of color to acknowledge their achievements and leadership with one more curtain call. Among the honorees were Raven Wilkinson, the first dancer to break ballet’s color barrier when she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955; Carmen De Lavallade, the renowned dancer, actress, and choreographer; and Marcia Sells, a Dance Theatre of Harlem alumna who is now the Dean of Students at Harvard Law School.   

Change, Diane McIntyre’s work for three female dancers that received its premiere in February, was a fitting follow-up to this ceremony. Inspired by black women throughout history who have pushed for change in their communities and around the world, McIntyre’s characters are built from a mixture of archetypes and icons, from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to mothers, sisters, and neighborhood elders. To the ominous sounds of Eli Fountain’s original drumming score, the dancers rush across the stage, then pause to observe one another – a storm is brewing. Stripping down to patchwork unitards made from the tights of former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerinas, the trio unites, supporting each other in turn through daring extensions and balances. Though still in their pointe shoes, the dancers are not beholden to the typical ballet lexicon. The results vary: the dancers’ effortful shouts during their solo moments were unconvincing in City Center’s vast space, but the modified bourrée motif was spot on. Typically, this step, a small, vigorous alternating of feet, is performed with the legs tightly together to give the illusion of floating or ethereality. In Change, the dancers bourrée in a wide, second position stance. This step of sylphs and ghosts becomes the step of grounded, powerful pursuers, chasing down the audience and anyone who dares to stand in their way.

The evening concluded with Nacho Duato’s Coming Together, a fast-paced, non-stop thriller of a dance that the company performs exceptionally well. Ingrid Silva and Da’Von Doane stand out from the crowd with a series of fearless duets, and Chyrstyn Fentroy shines once again as the leader of a trio of mysteriously seductive women. Propelled forward by Frederic Rzewski’s burgeoning score, the dancers emerge triumphant from Duato’s relentless, swirling composition. While the stylistic diversity of the program played to some strengths more than others, there is solid evidence here that the company still has room to grow. Duato’s work is, to my eye, the most demanding, but the dancers rise to the occasion; with more work like this, they are sure to go far.

 

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