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A Reborn Dance Theatre of Harlem

Written by Karena Birk

Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo by Rachel Neville 
On November 16, 2012, Dance Theatre of Harlem made a triumphant return to Seattle on the stage of the Moore Theatre. This was an incredible opportunity to see a company that has been hugely important in this country’s dance history. The company is less than a month into their performance tour marking their comeback from an 8-year hiatus caused by financial difficulties, and throughout the evening the dancers looked fresh, energized, and inspired. Even though DTH is well-known for its performance of classic works such as Agon and Creole Giselle, the company made a bold statement about their confidence in their future by bringing a program of three premiers. Not every new work will become a classic, and the evening had great disparity in the quality of choreography, but one must take risks to move forward, and it is exciting to see that DTH isn’t playing it safe.

The program opened with Robert Garland’s Gloria, to music by Francis Poulenc. This was a pretty, nice ballet piece with little of choreographic interest to recommend it. Both the movement vocabulary and the deployment of dancers on the stage were conventionally classical, with an occasional turned in leg or flexed foot as an attempt to be contemporary. Local children briefly danced in a couple sections, and though it was surely a wonderful experience for them, their appearances had little rhyme or reason, and seemed merely there for the purpose of drawing applause from proud parents. However, the DTH dancers looked wonderful, and left no doubt that they have serious classical ballet chops. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the piece was that it did not present nearly enough of a challenge to the dancers; they could have done so much more.

The second piece on the program, Far But Close, by John Alleyne, was the highlight of the evening. It was set to a recorded score with live cello and viola, which alternated with two actors reading a narrative by Daniel Beaty. Four exemplary dancers, Ashley Murphy, Stephanie Williams, Da’Von Doane, and Jehbreal Jackson, gave movement life to Beaty’s story of love and the difficulty of being vulnerable. The narrative followed a man on a subway seeing a “pretty little black girl, sitting there looking so tough.” Despite her initial reaction to go for her mace when “Sistah, I was just trying to say hello,” they end up going home together, and then confronting the question of “how do broken people love each other?” “The best they know how—in fragments.” This could have turned into a treacly dance of acting out the words, but Alleyne wisely let specificity rest in the narrative, and freed himself to choreograph a nuanced range of reactions and relationships on the two couples of Williams and Jackson, and Murphy and Doane. The movement vocabulary included everything—classical ballet, jazz, hip hop, modern—and could have been incoherent, but rather was a delightful use of any means available to move expressively. The dancers negotiated the wide ranging vocabulary with ease and mastery. They all had impressive palates of movement qualities, from fierce power to subtle delicacy, and each established his or her own perspective and individuality.

Dance Theatre of Harlem in Contested Spaces
Photo by Rachel Neville
Donald Byrd’s Contested Space was the perfect closer for the program. Set to a driving electronic score by Amon Tobin, it “is a hip exploration of contemporary male/female relationships.” As the title suggests, it was mostly an exploration of combative male/female relationships, which gave Byrd the opportunity to pull out all his usual stops of aggressive, athletic dancing, especially in a series of show-stopping, virtuosic duets. The five men and five women contested space with each other in these duets with one impossible feat after another, and tried to steal the spotlight from each other in larger group sections, wherein each individual’s intensity and prowess could make one think that there was no one else on stage. The unrelenting drive and energy of the piece sent the audience out of the theatre buzzing and wide-awake, an exciting end to a wonderful evening.

DTH was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, after his illustrious career at New York City Ballet, where he broke racial barriers as the first black person in the company. He intended DTH to prove that black dancers absolutely belonged in the world of classical ballet, and more importantly, he intended DTH to be a great dance company. DTH succeeded on both counts. Yet over 40 years later, dancers of color, especially women, struggle to find acceptance in the wider ballet world. DTH’s return to the stage is a cause for celebration. However, the celebration is bittersweet: Mitchell’s battle is still not won.