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Review: The Dance Theatre of Harlem Takes Audiences on a Journey at New York City Center

The ballet company, returning to the stage at the Center City Dance Festival, unites different spaces and times in a diverse, three-part program.

Review:  The Dance Theatre of Harlem Takes Audiences on a Journey at New York City Center

The Dance Theatre of Harlem, returning to the stage now through April 10th at the City Center Dance Festival, is our steward on this great journey. In a diverse three-part program featuring choreography by Robert Garland, Claudia Schreirer and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, audiences are gently guided through the hope and despair at war in every place.

Review:  The Dance Theatre of Harlem Takes Audiences on a Journey at New York City Center

The New York premiere of "Higher Ground," a work in five parts presented to the music of Stevie Wonder, is a dizzying descent through the most maddening aspects of modern America. Social media, the pandemic, our racial reckoning, the loneliness epidemic all get a "Sankofa-esque" treatment to encourage reflection on this road forward. Tempered by the easy, funkadelic sound of Wonder's music and a 70s-inspired groove, what could be yet another meditation on the 2020s finds a way to ask meaningful questions: What is history? Is it repeating? Are we agents of chaos or change?

Garland, The Dance Theatre of Harlem's resident choreographer, retains his signature fluidity and precision in "Higher Ground," rendering a work that is beautiful, and yet at times quite safe. The wow-factor in every triple turn or gravity-defying lift feels muted in the beginning, almost as if this is a rehearsal. Yet, by the time Wonder is singing about the moments "'til I reach my highest ground," the dancers are finally in their bodies. It's a slow burn that ends red hot.

Review:  The Dance Theatre of Harlem Takes Audiences on a Journey at New York City Center The program's cohesiveness comes from its ability to ground the audience in a place. "Passage" -- commissioned in 2019 to recognize the 400th anniversary of a series of pivotal events in America's history, including the first documented arrival of Africans in the bowels of slave ship -- stings with sense memory. Opening in darkness, dancers "swim" through the air as confusion stirs. In Jessie Montgomery's music there is a crashing wave and a gasp for air. Schreier's choreography is a technical feat, a story told in feet and arms that demands to know: Is what's above better than the hell below?

Review:  The Dance Theatre of Harlem Takes Audiences on a Journey at New York City Center Everything erupts in the New York premiere of Ochoa's "Balamouk." A colorful oasis with a riotous spirit, the work has elements of Romanian folk dance with Latin and Caribbean flairs. Ochoa has a way of making ensemble work reminiscent of a party right before the lights come up -- wild and free. Les Yeux Noir's "Balamouk," performed by the Klezmatics, turns the dancers' bodies into instruments. A snake-like arm slithers to a flute, while a leap explodes on a drum beat. At one point Ingrid Silva, in red, bourrées across the stage and her shadow climbs the scrim behind her getting bigger and bigger as she gives herself to the movement. Such homage to the human form in all its beauty is a fitting farewell as the night's journey comes to a close.


The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at New York Center City Dance Festival through April 10th. Programs will vary. Tickets start at $35. Vaccination and ID required for attendance. Masks must be worn in the theater.

The City Center Dance Festival runs through April 10th. Tickets start at $35. Programs feature live music by the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Vaccination and ID required for attendance. Masks must be worn in the theater.



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