Thirty years ago, Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook opened a dance school in Harlem, where, for very small fees, neighborhood kids could study classical ballet. The shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. had roused Mitchell’s political conscience, and he wanted to bring a form he loved and practiced into the black community. Like George Balanchine, in whose New York City Ballet he danced for 15 years, Mitchell knew that you started with a school and grew a company. His dream, realized, made a point that— sadly— still needed making: young African Americans could achieve a classical line and demonstrate an elegance and courtly decorum that would eventually bring DTH recognition as a major ballet company at home and abroad.
From the beginning, Mitchell has labored to reconcile the two halves of what sometimes seemed like a split personality: the company’s desire to tackle neoclassicism, exemplified by the Balanchine ballets in its repertory, and its black cultural roots, shown early on in works like Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla (revived for this City Center season). The company wanted— needed— an audience that could yell “bravo!” and “right on!” and feel at home with either.
Mitchell didn’t pick his troupe’s name out of a hat. It’s not “The Harlem Ballet.” The “Dance Theatre” label informs a lot of decisions and capitalizes on the dancers’ dramatic abilities. They attacked Fokine’s Schéhérazade, a venerable exotic from the Diaghilev era, as if it were fresh meat. The Balanchine ballets they perform so well (The Prodigal Son, Bugaku, and The Four Temperaments play this week) tend to be ones with elements of narrative or emotional tension. Some classics received a makeover: a Giselle transplanted to the bayou, a Firebird set in a Caribbean jungle.
Black choreographers contributing to the repertory may be ballet-minded or not. The brand-new Return by resident choreographer Robert Garland forces classical steps and pop dance into a slightly uneasy mating. Spectators yelp with recognition when long-legged women in scanty beam-me-up silver outfits strut in, hard-eyed as runway models, to James Brown singing “Mother Popcorn.” But they’re equally enthusiastic when the same dancers strike out on point or grab a partner to perch in arabesque. Men whip their hips around, then shoot into assemblés battus and double turns.
An avowed Balanchine disciple, Garland keeps the dancers weaving in and out in neat lines and squads. What bothers me is not so much the insouciant eclecticism, but the fact that when the ear hears James Brown and Aretha Franklin, the eye craves choreography that honors the groove, whatever the steps. And lights up the words. No wonder we melt in delight during “Baby, Baby, Baby” when Lenore Pavlakos oozes and twines her way from Kip Sturm to Kymm Clayton to William Isaac, while Franklin’s voice velvets out the line “I love you, I love you, I love YOU.” The piece’s sudden ending comes as a surprise; maybe the talented Garland is still working on it.
Augustus Van Heerden, Laveen Naidu, and Mitchell, the triumvirate responsible for South African Suite, couldn’t ignore the lilt of its music if they tried. The wonderful Soweto String Quartet, augmented by percussion, sits high on a scaffold behind the dancers and dares your feet not to tap, although the music, simple and tuneful, can also be mournful. The choreography sometimes evokes flora and fauna, as when tall, luxurious Caroline Rocher glides into slow, sculptured moves (a woman walking on all fours on point is suprisingly giraffelike), or Kellye A. Saunders and James Washington crouch and lunge like cats. But Paunika Jones (what a nuanced dancer she is!), Kevin Thomas, and Andrea Long radiate pure, adroit human vigor, and eight men indulge in some rivalrous virtuosity reminiscent of Robert North’s Troy Games, a former repertory staple. One of the most interesting dances comes just before the hunkered-down, clap-and-slap finale, when Camille Parson dances to tablas alone, a subtly East Indian cast to her wheeling arms and thrust-out heels.
Some years ago, DTH’s original Firebird Stephanie Dabney was beginning to let an absurd staged curtain call (a slow, staccato stalk) affect her whole performance. While we were waiting for her to learn to feather the steps, to develop moments of softness in order to point up her speed and strength, she got sharper and harder. Andrea Long, who came to DTH from New York City Ballet, attacks the choreography with the precision and unaltering dynamics of a sparkly windup toy. Hers is no mysterious, flashing magic bird, but a hectically spiky little creature who can ace all the difficult steps but as yet has no idea how to live in them. Still, it’s good to see again John Taras’s fine version of the classic tale, with the Stravinsky score played live, Sturm and Pavlakos excellent as the lovers, and DTH’s beautifully disciplined, passionate ensemble of maidens and monsters splendid as always.
A man is lying on his back, a woman draped over his upraised feet; as long as he keeps his knees bent, she can embrace him, but his impulse is to straighten his legs, one jerk at a time, lifting her out of contact range. She makes the small hand waves you’d use to tell a driver to keep backing up, and he lets her down. For a few seconds.
The dancers are Kathryn Tufano and Jeffrey Kazin, and the piece is David Parker’s Tender Traps. Like all Parker’s clever dances, it belches irony, marrying the comic with the poignant, the light touch with the dark. Here are partners who have to grope for each other because they’re covering their eyes, who are so rigid that his arms won’t stay around her. While Doris Day and Frank Sinatra sing “Young at Heart” from the score of the eponymous film, Tufano is delicately discovering that she doesn’t even like the way Kazin smells. The dialogue and false starts on rehearsal tapes of the movie songs equate with the jolts in this relationship. A momentarily stuck record can cause a foot to backtrack.
Although heard rhythms are a Parker trademark, he’s an all-around musical choreographer. Tufano and Kazin slap out a terrific duel of fast dancing to “Ready, Willing, and Able.” In the 1998 solo Pop, Tufano plays bold but wary games, trying to get as close as she can to a piece of bubble wrap without stepping on it. When she finally plops down, aural and visual effects come eerily together. The bubbles erupt like gunshots amid the cheery music of Schotts & Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band.
Parker’s offstage voice announces Dances for Dylan Dog as a work-in-progress, forerunner of an extravaganza that’ll debut in Verona with a cast of 40. Based on an Italian comic strip and danced to assortment of old pop tunes, it does seem a bit undercooked at this point, but it’s fun to watch Kazin and vampish Tufano pursued by “disembodied hands” or dancing around a never-ending kiss.
The evening’s third premiere, Critical Mass, is the strangest and most enthralling of all. Choreographed and performed by Sara Hook and Parker, it shows a couple whose straight legs, powered by cranking hips, constantly threaten to trip them. Doggedly they dance, now and then tossing a leg high or throwing up their arms as if to solicit applause. Their ungainliness, their distracted air, and the fact that they rarely connect becomes all the more curious when juxtaposed to a recording of Stephen Foster’s beautiful duet “Would’st Thou Be Gone, Love?” based on the morning scene from Romeo and Juliet.
We ache for these two without quite knowing why— he in a shirt bearing the name and number of Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers, she in a short, iridescent taffeta party dress. This is not a guy who scores myriad touchdowns, and she looks like a faculty wife trying not to lose control. They dazedly bop a bit to a Mozart song that makes their faces hurt, and finally launch a wacky bravura performance. Jigging around, making a lot of energetic little punching gestures, they sing— with amazing skill, considering— the “La ci darem la mano” duet from Don Giovanni. Who are these people? It doesn’t matter. Us, maybe.