The ladies and gentlemen of Dance Theatre of Harlem are up for just about anything. Follow a dazzle of échappés, passés, and the odd gargouillade with down-and-dirty shimmying? They manage that (quite subtly too) in Robert Garland’s 2001 New Bach. Perform George Balanchine’s 1933 Serenade with a fine sense of its clarity, rush, and mystery? Yes, and Lenore Pavlakos is marvelously fluid and expressive in the principal female role. Capture the idiosyncratic styles of Jerome Robbins’s 1944 Fancy Free? Absolutely. Preston Dugger, Ikolo Griffin, and Donald Williams as the sailor buddies and Kellye A. Saunders, Caroline Rocher, and Leanne Codrington as the girls they fall in with give a rousing rendition in this fastidiously coached production, without losing the nuances that two 25-year-olds— Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein—labored over 60 years ago.
The Balanchine legacy has been crucial to DTH’s style and repertory ever since the company’s founding in 1969 by former New York City Ballet principal Arthur Mitchell. It’s good to see the dancers try to slip into the skin of his great contemporary Frederick Ashton. Ashton’s a master of reticent lyricism, yet he’s also one of the few choreographers who remind us that the body can become languorous with passion. Anthony Dowell, who performed Ashton’s ravishing duet Thaïs magnificently at Britain’s Royal Ballet, has staged and costumed it for DTH. Set to the “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s eponymous opera, the ballet is an orientalist vision in which a veiled beauty visits an awed and ardent dreamer with noble manners and carriage. I sense that Duncan Cooper and Melissa Morrissey are still working their way into Ashton, but they’re beautiful to watch right now.
If the company style has a flaw, it stems, I think, from a desire to be precise. Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments looked surprisingly tense and overly sharp on opening night, as if every move had to be given equal emphasis. (Perhaps nerves had something to do with it, DTH being one of the first attractions of “Lincoln Center Festival 2003.”) A man doesn’t just turn his head; he TURNS HIS HEAD. At the end of a move, a woman jerks her chin upward, as if to say smugly, “See, I did it!”
The audience loves the company’s new hour-long pop extravaganza St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet. That does not mean it’s a masterpiece. Based on a short-lived 1946 musical with a terrific score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, it has a plot that, condensed into a ballet, becomes a simplistic love- jealousy-death wrangle among gambler Biglow Brown; Della, the free-and-easy glamour girl everyone wants; Little Augie, a jockey; and Biglow’s “nice” girlfriend, Lila.
The production is gaudy. Tony Walton’s eye-popping, persimmon-colored saloon refers not only to Romare Bearden but to Matisse cutouts. When Biglow gets jealous, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer sneak a green light on him. Willa Kim’s slinky bi-colored costumes distract the eye. Michael Smuin has adapted the musical’s ideas with a combination of imagination, flair, theatrical know-how, and nosedives into vulgarity. He doesn’t expect us to wonder why there’s a cakewalk when he’s moved the time forward to the 1940s; he expects us to clap and we do. He doesn’t think we’ll be baffled when Biglow (Williams), who’s been constantly shoving Augie (Griffin) away from Della (Rocher), sits morosely on the sidelines while the two have their hottest duet yet. There’s some fetching choreography for Lila (I saw Tai Jimenez), two guys who act as her horsey, and Biglow; a knife-edge tango for Biglow and Della; solid jockey stuff for Little Augie; and a duet of startling lifts in which Williams (a superb actor-dancer) can almost make us believe he’s pushing Jimenez away.
I’d rather forget about the two tappers from left field who cover a mass costume change by trying to remind us that the Nicholas Brothers were in the original. Ditto the too-much-present Death (Antonio Douthit, who was so fine in the “Phlegmatic” section of Four Temperaments). Death as Baron Samedi dressed as a male Playboy Bunny. Death with girl ghouls. Aargh!
Artists often resist being grouped by race, nationality, or gender. You might rather be labeled a great poet than the greatest woman poet. Yet some young choreographers seem to profit by groupings. In the Voice of June 11, Anne Gadwa told writer Sara Wolf that queer programming had given her some opportunities she might not have had: “I’m a young emerging artist who happens to be a dyke, and they needed a dyke.”
For this year’s “Fuse: The NYC Celebration of Queer Culture,” HERE and Dixon Place joined forces, combining the “Hot!” and “Queer” festivals. So in the season’s dance component, a choreographer could, presumably, be hot! but not necessarily queer, or vice versa. Anyway, does sexuality distinguish a choreographer’s work more than other components of his or her physical, spiritual, and mental makeup?
The two programs I saw confirm my belief that it doesn’t. Carlos Fittante’s brief solo, Amantes, on the “Queer Moves” evening curated by Kimberley Brandt, was one of the few pieces that clearly explored sexual ambiguity. Fittante, bare-chested in an ankle-length skirt, wearing a wig of long black hair and a serenely beautiful Balinese mask of indeterminate gender, moves with gentle, questioning seductiveness to a song by Juan Gabriel. But dance being as open-ended as it is, you can see Tamieca McCloud’s Reasons for herself and Tara Pasquarello as a tender combat between sisters as much as between lovers. The shifting relations among Daniel Gwirtzman, Jason Ignacio, and Cary McWilliam in Gwirtzman’s intriguing and darkly dramatic Stations suggest a family: Gwirtzman is tall and somber, Ignacio much smaller, and McWilliam and the choreographer at first handle him almost like a doll. There’s a hint of religiosity in their abrupt gestures and slow changes of heart, colored by Arvo Pärt’s music. Charles O. Anderson’s (Re)visited Soliloquies features a man and a woman (Anderson and Darla Stanley) who engage—without hackneyed male-female business—in silent conversations and dance-rich private meditations, often with their backs to us. (Anderson is a stunning mover—softly powerful, dynamically complex).
On the “Body Blend” program, Jessi Scopp and Sharon Estacio offered a light view of two women’s tussles in Scopp’s Untitled. Waiting around, Estacio’s a charming stumblebum; at one point she fixates on one foot like a cat chasing its tail, and later falls asleep standing there. Interactions between the two are equally curious and disarming. Two elegant, tingling solos by Barbara Mahler for herself and Roberta Cooper (Falling Sky) make you see very particular people who happen to be women, rather than “female” or “queer.” In one of the more mystifying pieces on the program, Rachel Thorne Germond moves in languid sympathy with one of Judy Garland’s late, saddening public rants (on video), and in another, Jesse Phillips-Fein’s Flesh Box, four women undergo a slow, tempestuous voyage, sometimes with their eyes closed. What’s “queer” about all this?
“Lesbian Choreographers Redefine Motion” by Sara Wolf