Dance Theatre of Harlem Review: Repertory Favorites April 21, 2023 | New York City Center – New York, NY, USA
Two themes stood out in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Repertory Favorites program during their New York City Season – relationships and love – as if an homage to, and reflection of, their departing leader.
It doesn’t take much to recognize that Virginia Johnson is leaving behind a legacy and an abundance of love for her company and the dance world. After reviving DTH from the brink of dissolution back in 2009, today the company is known for its prestige more than ever, ready for Robert Garland to take over the reigns.
Higher Ground, the opening contemporary ballet choreographed Garland, began with a harmonious circle formation against a blue backdrop. It set the tone for community-building and drew the audience in to another world from the mundane.
The dancers, three women and three men, traveled through space while linking arms, cannoning and echoing, then broke out into short solos. The choreographic transitions were captivating, alternating suddenly between pedestrian and highly technical ballet movements.
The women, all on pointe, rolled through their feet quietly as they danced, barely making a sound. And when they boureéd, they were more rhythmic, tapping downwards on the music, like establishing strong roots as trees on stage.
A moment of transcendence took place during the fourth movement. I felt like I was transported to a gospel church… praying in motion!
Sympathizing with the dancers, I felt myself elevated from my seat while I watched a dancer being lifted in the shape of a cross. The dancers took charge of every moment when they had to suspend a turn or elongate a reach, freezing their legs in the air for just a second longer in a grand battement.
Music by Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright, Sembello and Gary Byrd surely provoked nostalgic for many in the audience.
Throughout the ballet, Garland presented a smorgasbord of his personal dance influences, blending all he knew as a dance professional, as if indirectly introducing himself as the new upcoming director of the company, a symbol of the proverbial passing of the baton.
What was delightful to see was his personal touch on adding cultural embellishments on top of his ballet roots. Higher Ground got a little hip-hoppy in moments, with funk, high energy, and fists pumping in the air. In the middle of the second section, Egyptian walks from Horton technique were added to some ballet steps, and here and there, some circling of the hips were performed by the women. And a little Sinte was peppered in towards the finale with lots of boogie-ing in the midst of arabesques.
I was drawn to the genre shifts between, for example, a seriously executed entrechat quatre then back to boogie-ing on the way down from the jump. It was unique and I was really hooked, always wondering what would happen next.
The dancers attacked their triple pirouettes in unison, and Garland cleverly modernized ballet by using iPhones as props in a part of the choreography. Yet he also paid respect to traditional ballet, a nod to Giselle when a dancer hopped on pointe down a diagonal.
Next up, the radiantly choreographed Orange by Stanton Welch was definitely a standout.
This contemporary ballet took place, again, between three couples, paired with Antonio Vivaldi’s music and an overwhelming amount of the color orange in the sets.
Initially, the piece struck me as George Balanchine’s Serenade – Was I about to witness an orange Serenade in place of the blue one choreographed by Mr. B.?
It was anything but that!
A bright and warm intro highlighted by a surprise peck on the cheek that clearly amused the sold-out theatre faded quickly.
What unfolded next was a melancholy pas de deux between a couple who clearly shouldn’t be with each other romantically. The man’s movements were pushy and manipulative, such that the woman seemed possessed by his dominance; she pushed his arms away several times when he tried to cover her ears, her head quivering repeatedly, but all to no avail.
The chemistry between couple number two was much different than the previous. They waltz in, later holding a lingering hug at the end of their dance as the lights dim with the man slowly peeling himself away from her body to reveal a natural separation. Alone at center stage for a brief moment, frozen, another woman runs onto stage, seemingly a rescuer comforting the broken-hearted woman.
To my surprise, the speedy finale after the third – more chivalrous pas de deux – became giddy. Ballerinas grooved to Vivaldi rolling their arms with tight fists during echappés, bobbling their heads, or shimming their way to their dance partners. The dancing lightened up the mood of the theatre, an increasingly intense orange light finishing the piece with a sense of optimism.
As the night continued, I found myself developing a huge crush on the third piece by Helen Pickett titled When Love.
Set to Philip Glass music, this love duet started off with an audible countdown in the background, at first ominous as if something powerful was about to set off. A man and a woman were clearly and deeply connected to one another, dancing passionately against the robotic voices of numbers.
Later, the piece disclosed a poem, the dancers embodying the spoken words:
“Two lovers. Sat on a park bench. Their bodies touching…”.
Although the audience rejoiced When Love ended with a swooning kiss, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could the piece have stood alone without any vocal accompaniment and still convey the same power of romantic love?
The evening concluded with Nacho Duato’s Coming Together, danced by six women and six men, set to Frederic Rzewski’s very minimalistic and repetitive music. Aesthetically, the geometric backdrops (i.e. an orange triangle and an orange circle) were also eye-catching, provoking curiosity about the meaning behind it all.
The male dancers wore black tank tops, each with a different letter of the alphabet prominently displayed red, yet I couldn’t make out if they were trying to spell out anything in particular.
The piece was nonstop movement that was physically rigorous with extraordinarily difficult partnering happening in sprints and lots of lifting, turning, swinging, falling, sliding, and jumping. The frantic piano music made the dance feel even more urgent and exhaustive, requiring the amazing Dance Theatre of Harlem cast to pull it off.
Duato’s choreography was also a concoction of dance styles that ebbed and flowed randomly between lots of contemporary ballet, Graham technique, tango, some Fosse Broadway jazz, and even a little bit of the “Four Little Swans” from Swan Lake. I couldn’t help but giggle a little when I saw three of the men and one woman interlace their arms in front of themselves (and later, behind their backs!) as they did tried hard to stay synchronized. Duato responsibly borrowed such an iconic moment in dance history, and I thought his edition was pretty creative.
As more couples came on to perform in the following sections, I picked up on an obvious energy shift. The difficulty level of the choreography was turned up even higher with lots of challenging lifts that required some serious abdominal strength.
Flashes of choreography from the earlier parts repeated like a broken record, and the characters became more restless and athletic. It was an energy overload that grew more intense, the dancers becoming mechanical, ready to shutdown.
At the final moment, the men dropped down forward in unison into planks as the women stood behind them and then turned upstage to walk away.
The curtain descended as the audience arose to give a long-standing ovation.
Featured Photo for this Dance Theatre of Harlem review of Kouadio Davis and Alexandra Hutchinson in Robert Garland’s Higher Ground. Photo by Theik Smith.
Mimi Liu is a full-time middle school dance teacher with the New York City Department of Education. She also teaches at The Brooklyn Ballet, as well as on her own YouTube channel Plié For The People. Mimi attended the American Ballet Theatre New York summer intensives three years in a row as a teenager, then graduated from the Boston Conservatory where she obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degree in Dance. After moving to New York City, Mimi earned her M.F.A. in Dance from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and her M.A. in Dance Education from Hunter College on Full-Tuition Scholarship. Mimi is certified in levels Pre-Primary through Level 3 of the ABT® National Training Curriculum and she is enthused by anything ballet!