Thoughtful Virtuosity in Dance Theatre of Harlem
These letters were stitched onto Dance Theatre of Harlem’s costumes in the final piece of Saturday’s performance and it could have been the motto of the evening. Prefaced with an acknowledgment of the challenges facing arts organizations in our current time, and continuing all evening to bring up other urgent issues like the refugee crisis and the prison industrial complex, the program invited the audience to consider the role of arts in the community and the possibilities of dance to uniquely and powerfully convey ideas and emotion. While choreographically and musically distinct, the pieces were tied together by an athleticism and commitment to the movement, as well as by a collective awareness of contemporary culture that encouraged artistic expression, critical thinking, and expanded perspectives, all while embracing the joy and physicality of movement.
Seattle’s Paramount Theatre hosted Dance Theatre of Harlem Saturday night, and enthusiastic audience members cheered and clapped as Ricardo Frazer, president of the STG Board of Directors, and Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director, began the show by thanking the National Endowment for the Arts and discussing the importance of community engagement to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s mission, both in its own neighborhood and in the cities where the company tours. With the NEA potentially subject to drastic budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, arts organizations are understandably worried about the impact these cuts could have on their operations. Rather than a mood of fear, however, the Paramount Theatre buzzed with vocal support for the arts.
This positive yet aware atmosphere continued throughout the evening. Dance Theatre of Harlem resident choreographer Robert Garland’s New Bach opened the program by bringing joy to the forefront, which felt, in itself, like an act of resistance. The choreographic style featured neoclassical ballet movement and echoes of Balanchine merging with the playful swagger of hip wiggles and snapping fingers. Led by dancers Da’Von Doane and Chyrstyn Fentroy, the broad smiles and playful edge the company brought to the choreography conveyed the simple joy of dancing collectively. Some of the steps were less perfectly synchronized than they could have been, but the piece was full of character and embodied the pure enjoyment that can come from dance, whether watched or performed. Given the context of the rest of the program, the explicit awareness throughout of the current political atmosphere, and Dance Theatre of Harlem’s emphasis on racial diversity, the fact that dancers of color were creating and performing joy felt significant. It was empowering to see bodies so often subject to prejudice portraying lightheartedness on their own terms.
Even without the program notes accompanying System, you could sense aspiration, anticipation, worry, and hope from the expressive dancers. Choreographed on the Dance Theatre of Harlem by former dancer Francesca Harper, System is presented alongside a poem by dancer Jorge Andres Villarini, beginning “I am a migrant. One of the many.” Villarini himself was a standout performer in this work, his height and power drawing eyes to him in enormous jetés across the stage. Ingrid Silva, physically small in stature, stood out with big energy, powerful leaps, and precise turns. And Nicholas Rose performed a feat that made the audience collectively catch its breath when he, in the middle of a sequence of fouettés, propelled himself vertically into the air while spinning and continued whipping around upon landing. The amplified breathing of the Seattle Symphony String Quartet, who played the accompanying music by John Adams, mingled with the effort of the dancers so they were almost one multi-bodied being. Dramatic lighting changes enhanced this feeling of unity. The dancers watched each other closely, with small glances and the touching of hands reading as significant as larger gestures like covering their mouths and improbable, daring lifts. There was a sense of grasping, of coming together for support, and also of breaking into individual expression before joining each other repeatedly behind a dramatic downstage spotlight that magnified their bodies against the background scrim.
The dynamic ability of the dancers was further showcased in Nacho Duato’s Coming Together. The driving, pulsing score by Frederic Rzewski uses repeated spoken text excerpted from a letter written by political activist Sam Melville while incarcerated in Attica Prison in 1970. The context of the letter discusses Melville’s feeling of being able to “act with clarity and meaning,” feeling “secure and ready” despite the “indifferent brutality” of his environment. Coming Together took the perhaps unexpected positivity of these words and conveyed them to the stage, celebrating clarity of thought and expansive imagination, which existed alongside the knowledge of a brutal situation and an awareness of a tragic end (Melville was killed in the Attica Prison riots of 1971). The letters on the male performers’ shirts, which were jumbled throughout the piece, lined up during the finale to spell “I THINK,” seemingly a statement of the company’s role as well as a mandate for the audience to engage critically with the material and the world.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem convinced the audience (who jumped to their feet for an immediate standing ovation following this final piece) that it is possible and necessary for technical dance to address politics, and that it is likewise possible to hold both the difficulty and hopelessness of certain contemporary experiences alongside determination, strength, and joy. The dancers’ commitment to the material and the movement, the carefully curated program, and their explicit emphasis on community outreach, both through their professional company and through their school and community programs, add up to a company that is making the world a better place, one pirouette at a time.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem performed Saturday, March 11, 2017 and Sunday, March 12, 2017 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle as part of STG’s 2016-2017 season.