BWW Review: Dance Theatre of Harlem Gorgeous at Guggenheim Rotunda Project
If Dance Theatre of Harlem's performance on September 30th, 2019 was any indication of what the company has in store, then audiences are in for a treat. In a play on "sankofa", looking backwards to move forward, DTH returned to the Guggenheim Museum for the first time since 1971 to perform 3 ballets. Similarly to that debut, this performance for the Works & Process Rotunda Project marked the announcement of a dynamic new venture.
It is hardly a trade secret that DTH has struggled since its revival in 2012. Under the artistic direction of Virginia Johnson, the company has experienced no problem with attracting top notch talent. The issue has been retention; how can any enterprise grow if 30% of its dancers jump ship every year? Happily, the same group that soared across the stage last season has returned, stronger and more vibrant than ever.
This was clearest during the three opening themes of George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, which has returned to the company's repertoire for the first time in over a decade. For many years, critics around the world argued that DTH performed 4T's better than New York City Ballet. As coached by former City Ballet soloist Diana White, that is once again true. The mechanics of shifting through architectural swoops and austere line with surgical clarity, proved no challenge here. Balanchine's maxim has always been, "Don't think, dear, do"; these dancers did so boldly, without push or pause. What amplified the performance was that with zero need for mugging or commenting on the movement, they were able to project their pleasure in the sensuality of encoiling limbs and diving forward while pressing through the pelvis. Martha Graham knew what the pelvis was all about; so do these dancers.
Yinet Fernandez was particularly effective with her razor sharp legs--as they effortlessly slashed before her body--and clear articulation through the feet as she rolled from flex to point with pinpoint accuracy. Amanda Smith and Anthony Santos were a delight of bubbling allegro, devouring the second theme's off-balanced manhandling, darting jumps, and partnered entrechats. Just one critique: more flex in your elbows as you exit the stage, Mr. Santos.
Daphne Lee was astonishing in the 3rd theme. Never giving more than what was required, her performance offered a lovely contrast of trust vs. submission. Most ballerinas approach this role by whacking themselves into hyper-extended positions. Taking her cues from the grand pas in Agon, Ms. Lee chose instead to respond to Dylan Santos' partnering, by deepening the pliancy in her back as he pressed against her, surrendering herself to his initiative. Their exit--her leaning against him with her legs hovering straight forward at just above 90 degrees as he carried her off--was tantric in its control.
Dance Theatre of Harlem's founder, Arthur Mitchell, was many incredible things, but no one ever accused him of being a master choreographer. However, with Tones II, which he'd started reworking just before his death, the audience was met with a splendid study of neoclassical ballet. There was a time when Tones was taught to all DTH company members and performed at every school lecture-demonstration as an explanation of the neoclassical style. It is clear that Mitchell also used it as a strength-training ballet, particularly for the men; Tones requires long held stagnant lifts that would tax even the most accomplished of weight lifters. Thank goodness that DTH's ballerinas are so petit and that, at least on this night, its danseurs were equal to the lifting requirements.
Well performed, the only flaw in this performance came not from Tania León's score, but in its playing from a pre-recorded source. Part of what made The Four Temperaments so wonderful to watch was Susan Walters' evocatively nuanced, responsive in the moment, piano playing. There is a reason why ballet aficionados groan over taped music. With its dynamics blunted and volume levels equally mixed, the MP3 file used for Tones offered poor accompaniment to these lively dancers.
No amount of amplification, whether live or canned, could have saved Robert Garland's Nyman String Quartet #2. Set to elliptically repetitive strains by Michael Nyman, this piece was a collection of equally repetitive steps arranged in flat lines that rarely deviated from their static arrangement. Step touches, parallel ponies, bobbing and weaving, shuffle steps, legs turning in and out, a few turns, and a brief interlude for big jumps from the men; String Quartet was an effect-less arrangement of theme with no variation, proving that when it comes to sankofa, sometimes it's best to keep looking back.
As a relaunch for Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Rotunda Project proved an absolute success, particularly in what it taught us about these dancers: Balanchine is their bloodline and they are best when performing the work of bold choreographers with grand vision. There has been much discussion of late over the necessity of an all-Black or mostly-Black ballet company. The case against DTH argues that integration of ballet companies across the country, while slow, is happening. The veracity of that point is made moot when confronted by this group of talented dancers. Whether it fall under the auspices of Black Excellence or Excellence Of Individuals Who Happen To Be Black, as the case may be, I hope that Dance Theatre of Harlem continues to exist for as long as it can maintain this glorious level of dancing. Forward.
Review written and edited by Juan Michael Porter II.