Dance Theatre of Harlem Returns to Jacob's Pillow, 7/9-13
Following a successful opening week of Festival 2013, Dance Theatre of Harlem returns with an all-new program. DTH gave its first professional performance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 1970; since that date, DTH and the Pillow have enjoyed a longstanding and fruitful artistic relationship. The company, led by Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, performs Donald Byrd's smooth yet power-packed contemporary ballet Contested Space, which features a plethora of solos and duets. past-carry-forward, created for DTH by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis, conveys the spirit and significance of the Harlem Renaissance. The cornerstone of this dynamic evening is the late choreographer Ulysses Dove's moving, elegiac ballet Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, danced to "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" by Arvo Pärt. The company appears in a special seven-show engagement in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob's Pillow, July 9-13.
"The founding and history of Dance Theatre of Harlem is an inspiring chapter in the story of dance in America," says Pillow Executive and Artistic Director Ella Baff. "Today, the company continues to hold a special place in dance, with dramatic choreography and exciting dancers who perform with great heart and soul. Audiences respond; DTH is one of the most popular companies around."
Donald Byrd's Contested Space highlights the power of its ten dancers, with steely-strong partnering and pliant flexibility. The women of the company execute thrilling pointe work as fast as lightning; the men dazzle in acrobatic leaps and lunges that prove their athleticism and strength. Brazilian electronic music composer Amon Tobin contributes a driving score, while Peter D. Leonard's lighting design sets a cool yet sultry tone. "There's a sexual thread in [Contested Space]," wrote Michael Upchurch of The Seattle Times, "and something sterner and chillier too."
A theatrical work blending narrative and abstract movement, past-carry-forward "bristles with a feeling of vitality and opportunity, with devil-may-care partnering and fast footwork" (Sarah Halzack, The Washington Post). Former company members Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis created past-carry-forward for DTH in 2013, drawing inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance and from the idea of "double consciousness," a concept set forth by sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, a Berkshire County native. The work unfolds in scenarios, set to the music of Willie "The Lion" Smith and SLIPPAGE, exploring Harlem nightlife, military segregation, and the civil rights movement, culminating in a reflection on racism and humanity.
Mesmerizing in its grace, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven by the late choreographer Ulysses Dove is a reverent contemporary ballet set to composer Arvo Pärt's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten." A work for six dancers, Heaven features an articulate movement vocabulary and weightless partnering, including an intimate duet for two men. The ballet has been performed at the Pillow on multiple occasions since its 1993 premiere, most recently in 2009 by Pacific Northwest Ballet; Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald wrote of a PNB performance of the work: "[Heaven] doesn't end so much as fade away, and it leaves the watcher moved and changed; like a poem you don't quite realize you've memorized."
Dance Theatre of Harlem has recently returned to fulltime operation from a nine-year hiatus, during which time the school (including the performing Ensemble) continued to operate. The company marked its reemergence with its Jacob's Pillow Festival 2013 engagement, prompting audience excitement and critical acclaim - Tresca Weinstein of The Albany Times Union wrote that the company "is back on its feet-with a vengeance." Under the direction of founding company member Virginia Johnson, herself a celebrated ballerina and the founding editor-in-chief of Pointe Magazine, DTH boasts stellar classically-trained dancers from a variety of backgrounds including Dance Theatre of Harlem School, American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, School Pacific Northwest Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Kirov Academy of Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Boston Ballet, and The Ailey School.
Company History: DTH founder Arthur Mitchell made history in 1955 as the first African American member of the New York City Ballet. Following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, he shifted his focus from his own career to the careers of young dancers of color. After leaving NYCB and founding the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, a professional company was soon established and made its official debut at Jacob's Pillow in 1970. The company, comprised of African-American and other racially diverse artists, soon rose to ground-breaking prominence and performance level that was ranked with the major ballet companies of the world. After many years of success, DTH went on hiatus in 2004. Today, a revitalized Dance Theatre of Harlem offers a range of education, community engagement and audience development activities-and has re-entered touring, the creation of new work, and a home season. Robert Johnson of The New Jersey Star Ledger comments, "Reborn last fall under the stewardship of artistic director Virginia Johnson, the company's former prima ballerina, DTH is lighter and leaner, with a roster of fresh faces and a contemporary repertoire. The troupe's mission remains the same, however. The goal is to expand America's awareness of classical ballet 'and to bring dancers of color into it.'"