Review: Dance Theatre Of Harlem Sets Tone For The Future Of Ballet

By: May. 30, 2019

The Dance Theatre of Harlem begins with Balanchine.

The curtain rises on the iconic ballet master's Valse Fantaisie, featuring slim-limbed ballerinas in tufted tulle in an expertly executed petit allegro. From pas de deux to pirouette to pique turn, it is a soft, polite opening. After all, to begin with George Balanchine is to begin with a tribute to ballet as it has been for the past century.

Review: Dance Theatre Of Harlem Sets Tone For The Future Of Ballet
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Crystal Serrano,
Da' Von Doane and Lindsey Croop
in Valse Fantaisie.
Photo by Dave Andrewson

Thankfully, the Dance Theatre of Harlem does much more than just begin with Balanchine. The company's May 28-30th program with the Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America series -- a week-long exploration of the depth and breadth of ballet -- introduces audiences to works from Dianne McIntyre, Claudia Schreier, and Geoffrey Holder that transcend the traditional and set the tone for the future of ballet.

While Valse showcases the company's exceptional execution of ballet basics, McIntyre's Change demands the dancers be more than basic. Asked to yell and gasp, to slap their thighs and chests while performing en pointe a series of stag leaps, attitudes and pique turns, Lindsey Croop, Ingrid Silva and Stephanie Rae Williams combine technical skill with artistry and athleticism to evoke the memory of African-American female figureheads. The empowerment that abounds in the piece perfectly suits this year's Ballet Across America focus on female creativity and empowerment in the arts.

Review: Dance Theatre Of Harlem Sets Tone For The Future Of Ballet
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Ingrid Silva and Alison Storming
in Change. Photo by Kent Becker

Set to spirituals "By and By" and "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Round" performed by the Spelman College Glee Club, Change uses music and dance to tell a story of black, brown and beige women that is as resonate as any Nutcracker. Costume Director Oran Bumroongchart adds another layer to this narrative, emphasising the importance of ancestry in change, with leotards crafted from a patchwork of ballet tights worn by past company member. Not only does this choice further the message, it stands out in the warm shadows created by Lighting Director Alex Fabozzi.

If Change is a step away from beginning with Balanchine, Passage is both a step away and a step closer. Schreier is at her absolute best as she mixes the classical -- arabesque balanced on the head of a pin, jeté with enough momentum to power a small town -- with the contemporary -- a two-tiered waltz circle, a lift where a dancer literally swims across the stage. But what makes this piece a supernova is the performance from the male ensemble. Too often men in ballet are dismissed as built-in brawn, but in Scherier's choreography is a refreshing intimacy and vulnerability that is a great segue to final act, Dougla.

Review: Dance Theatre Of Harlem Sets Tone For The Future Of Ballet
Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Photo by Rachel Neville

From eye-catching red pom poms adorned on traditional dress to regal walking sticks, the culture of a "dougla," or a person of mixed Indian/South Asian and African descent, played out in the Caribbean wedding at the heart of Dougla is pure fun. A whimsical head shake connects a series of acrobatics to lively ensemble performances where every movement is perfectly stylized. But again, it's the male dancers who are so striking. Rather than ignore the raw physicality in his dancers, the late Holder capitalized on it in a series of strength-defying, gender-bending partner pieces. Lead Acrobats Rickey Flagg II and Caio Rodriguez are standouts, while the ensemble is in perfect sync during a cartwheel series. Conductor Tania León and Holder's original composition is both driving and authentic.

While ballet could spend another century beginning with Balanchine, the Dance Theatre of Harlem's latest commissions offer a different future, one where ballet is more daring and more perceptive than ever before.