Dance Theatre of Harlem’s opening night program at City Center, where it performs through October 7, shunned a glittery gala format. Instead, four former company members got a chance to showcase the dancers they know so well. Two mined the vein of contemporary classicism that branches from DTH’s Balanchinian heritage, and two provided dramatic or romantic works.
The most consistently “classical” ballet, Laveen Naidu’s Viraa to Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 2, spreads a web of bright, crisp patterns that show Naidu’s grasp of contrast and pleasing phrases. But the music creates a problem, changing texture so often that he has no time to develop anything. In this busy world, here come the men; there they go. Gentle, long-legged virtuoso Eric Underwood and ex-New York City Ballet dancer Andrea Long (vibrant with star shimmer) meet on the run, as if for a frothy cup at Starbucks.
Robert Garland’s New Bach is blessed with more danceable music, and he’s able to spend more time building images of courtly play. Like Naidu, he displays the dancers’ decorum and classical chops; their legs flash like needles. He also inserts small explosions of steps drawn from pop dance or African tradition, which the opening night audience unfortunately treated as major jokes instead of witty allusions. New Bach is led by the powerful, glowing Tanya Wideman-Davis and the always fine Donald Williams—a performer both restrained and full of life. Pamela Allen-Cummings designed sleek, gleaming costumes for both these useful ballets. I found myself wishing that lighting designer Roma Flowers would go easy on the colors and save her flashier effects for the other works on the program.
Lowell Smith’s passionate, farewell-before-battle Pas de Deux for Phrygia and Spartacus (to Khachaturian’s music for the Soviet ballet Spartacus) profits by Flowers’s orange sky and projected moon and/or sun. The two lovers cling and part, exult through headlong rushes into inflamed lifts, and cast troubled gazes at the peril lurking offstage. Delicate and charming corps member Melissa Morrissey clings to Duncan Cooper like a little animal, nuzzling him, nesting on his back. Cooper, one of my favorite DTH dancers, performs with technical bravura but also projects the nuanced emotions of a man who may be about to die.
Augustus van Heerden falls into just about every trap awaiting the choreographer of narrative ballet. The scenario of his Passion of the Blood, like that of García Lorca’s play Blood Wedding, involves a bride who runs off with a married man immediately after her own wedding, with disastrous results. Van Heerden wants us to understand events we haven’t yet seen. According to a program note, “His Wife’s mother tells her that Rafael has been seen near the Bride’s house,” but when this scene begins, we haven’t glimpsed the Bride or Rafael, let alone caught them together. What we get, as we do far too often, are exasperated gestures and alarmed looks. A guitarist plays Tarregá and Albéniz for the wedding dances, but emotions seethe to Jesús Villa-Rojo’s Cello Concierto No. 2. Ahmed Farouk, Kellye A. Saunders, Ramon Thielen, Lenore Pavlakos, and the entire cast give their all. As do DTH’s gifted dancers always.
The 17th Annual New York Dance and Performance Awards (a/k/a the Bessies) was a time both to mourn the dead and to excavate shards of hope from catastrophe. At this traditional coming-together of the dance community, there was less “How was your summer?” more prolonged hugging, and the searching question “Are you all right?” Robert Een’s strong voice floated out from backstage, leading us in “Amazing Grace.” Dance Theater Workshop’s David White invoked Martin Luther King Jr. (and Alanis Morissette) with words about healing the broken community. Laurie Uprichard of the Danspace Project quoted W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” written as World War II began: “The lights must never go out,/The music must always play.” A moment of silence honored Michael Richards, the artist who was at work in a tower one studio sponsored by the now homeless Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
The hosts, the usually boisterous Patricia Hoffbauer and George Emilio Sanchez, began soberly with a powerful antiphonal speech reiterating the need for artists to go on creating, to help us make sense of the complicated emotions wracking a society that has never faced such an assault. Bessie Schönberg’s words about artistic courage and daring rang in our ears. So did those of Sanchez, “We make the ugly less fearful and the beautiful come alive.”
An excerpt from Rennie Harris’s Bessie-sweeping Rome & Jewels, a violent statement against gang warfare (cf. William Shakespeare), ended disturbingly with Mercutio’s dying “A plague on both your houses!” A cherished duet by David Gordon and Valda Setterfield acquired new resonance: Over and over, the embraced slips from the embrace, and the partner remains for a few seconds holding air.
Few gloated over their checks (thanks to Time Out New York, the Harkness Foundation for the Dance, Big Apple Lights, and Electronic Theater Controls, all winners received cash awards). As usual there were tears, amazed and inarticulate expressions of delight, and gracious statements (John Jasperse dedicated his prize to his dancers “who really are my work”). Wit flared. Hoffbauer and Sanchez let their bilingual, conjugal kibitzing bubble out. We laughed when lovable Design Award presenter Matayo Wunmi Olaiya gave Doug Varone’s last name a careful Italian pronunciation. And we shot cheering to our feet when beautiful Carmen De Lavallade presented a Special Citation to Katherine Dunham. It seemed overwhelmingly important to have one of modern dance’s foremothers with us, still beautiful in her wheelchair. Remember four words, she told us as the spotlight picked her out amid the spectators, “Peace, Wisdom, Courage, Love.” And we were just as anxious to cheer Merce Cunningham, the epitome of the unstoppable art adventurer, hobbling delightedly onstage to accept David Vaughan’s award. In a city where a performance space, the World Trade Center Plaza, had become a grisly tomb, we needed to believe that art could rise in the towers’ nonexistent shadow.