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Dance Theatre of Harlem 2023

One of New York’s classical dance troupes proves its staying power dancing classics and new works.

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Dance Theatre of Harlem artists Kamal Saara and Kouadio Davis (Photo credit: Theik Smith)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left”] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

The Dance Theatre of Harlem returned to the New York City Center with a program that would test the mettle of any ballet company and came through with flying colors. There couldn’t be a better going-away gift for retiring artistic director Virginia Johnson who helped mold this troupe in the years following the decease of its founders, Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook.

George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante opened the program.  Choreographed in 1956 to a short Tchaikovsky piano/orchestra work, he showed off “everything I know about classical ballet in thirteen minutes.” Amanda Smith and Kouadio Davis were the leads, surrounded by four other couples, the women dressed in short flowing dresses—pink for Smith and pale green for the ensemble—and too bland tops for the men.  (Costumes by Katy A. Freeman.)

Balanchine skillfully balances the lush partnering first performed by the four couples with the quicker, slightly off-balance manipulations of the featured dancers.  Both Smith and Davis gallantly went through their individual solos which lead directly to the central pas de deux and the upbeat, breathtaking ending, a perfect vision of Balanchine’s musical mastery.

This Bitter Earth, the slightly hyperbolically titled duet, followed.  Choreographed by dance superstar Christopher Wheeldon to an unsettling melding of Dinah Washington singing Clyde Otis’ “This Bitter Earth” with Max Richter’s electronically generated distortions.  The duet was more than slightly evocative of Wheeldon’s After the Rain duet.  Both dances are darkly emotional, the mood of which Yinet Fernandez and Dylan Santos caught in their measured, but moving performance.

Dressed in shades of violet and purple—costumes by the busy Katy A. Freeman—the two blended in embraces only to part and rejoin in partnered turns.  Wheeldon’s steps, danced with great feeling, painted a portrait of two lovers on the skids, the dance ending with a stark parting.

A scene from Dance Theater of Harlem’s production of Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s Sounds of Hazel” (Photo credit: Jeff Cravotta)

A short documentary film about the fabulous actress, composer, pianist and wife of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Hazel Scott, preceded the new ballet, Sounds of Hazel, choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher.  The film revealed Rea-Fisher’s inspiration to put her feelings about Scott into ballet form. The resulting work, though uneven, gave the DTH dancers many opportunities to show their zest, sensuality and grace while still not particularly illuminating the astonishing life of Scott whose career was sidelined by the McCarthy Blacklisting forces.

The score, featuring only two Scott performances plus a pro-America speech she made, divides the work into seven sections designated by geographical locations: Trinidad, Harlem, Paris. The score was arranged and partially composed by Erica “Twelve45” Blunt.

Although well-meaning, Sounds of Hazel is not well choreographed, uneasily combining sassy hip swings with ballet to evoke Trinidad and jazzy movements adorning ballet steps to bring Paris alive.  Had Scott’s name not been in the title, there would be no way to infer that Sounds of Hazel was about her.

What almost saved the work from mediocrity was the solo danced by the marvelous Daphne Lee.  Lee, adorned in a slinky, silvery gown—costumes, redolent of period and place by Mark Zappone—steals the show with her charismatic dance/mime performance, her fingers rippling in a lighthearted imitation of Scott’s witty piano playing.  The bedazzled costume almost became another character as filled by Lee.

A scene from Dance Theater of Harlem’s production of Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s Sounds of Hazel” (Photo credit: Jeff Cravotta)

The final work was by William Forsythe whose in the middle somewhat elevated (1987) singlehandedly changed the ballet world with its cool, detached series of disconnected episodes performed beneath glaring white light to glaringly angular music.

He continues his scattershot methods with Blake Works IV, one of his least oppressive ballets. This ballet diverges from his usual M.O., by adding a big dollop of sensuality to his otherwise disconnected steps.

Stimulated during the Pandemic shutdown to choreograph via the internet, Forsythe used ballet barre exercises to propel Blake Works IV.  Indeed, there was a ballet barre upstage where the ten dancers, dressed in chic purple leotards (costumes by Forsythe and the doubly aforementioned Freeman), performed a series of solos hanging off this supporting horizontal pole showing off high extensions, flexible torsos and a raring-to-go attitude.  They really danced like a company, making sense of the steps bordering on the entertaining.

Although it is sad to say good-bye to Virginia Johnson, this New York City Center season—way too short—put a solid, classically-based troupe on display.  Whatever the ups and downs of the choreography—something DTH has to work on for sure—the quality of the dancing is high.

Dance Theatre of Harlem (April 19 – 23, 2023)

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org

Running time: two hours including two intermissions

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About Joel Benjamin (561 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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