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Review: DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM at Sidney Harman Hall

Review: DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM at Sidney Harman Hall

This program includes the world premiere of 'Sounds of Hazel,' celebrating the legacy of Hazel Scott

Surely, if a Black woman piano prodigy went to Juilliard in her teens, became a movie star in the Lena Horne era, was a featured act at New York's Café Society, had her own TV show, was an artist-luminary of the civil rights era, and was married to an iconic Black congressman, you would have heard of her, right? So, have you heard of Hazel Scott?

Neither had I. Crazy!

I felt terrible about that until I learned that until relatively recently Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, hadn't heard of Scott either. Then I felt terrible about it in a different way as I read about how the Red Scare of the 1950s torpedoed Scott's career and largely erased her from American history.

Dance Theatre of Harlem is doing its best to remedy that McCarthyite travesty in a lively work that had its world premiere Friday night in a Washington Performing Arts program at Sidney Harman Hall. "Sounds of Hazel" celebrates Scott on what would have been her 102nd birthday. It was supposed to be a celebration of her 100th, but Covid delayed that plan. Sadly, Scott died of pancreatic cancer at age 62.

One of Scott's signature skills was swinging the classics -- that is, taking classical or classically derived pieces and jazzing them up. She was good. I mean, really good. "Sounds of Hazel" itself swings Scott's life in an impressionistic manner. Before it even begins, pianist Janelle Gill sets the mood with a lush, flowing rendition of Ella Fitzgerald's "Taking a Chance on Love," and an illuminating short Nel Shelby-helmed film, "On Making 'Sounds of Hazel,'" explains the origins of the project.

Then it begins. Tiffany Rea-Fisher's vivid choreography is set to a score of Scott musical and spoken excerpts and some words from her son Adam Clayton Powell III. Those are blended with Erica "Twelve45" Blunt's beat-peppered phrase-looping additional music, shaken and stirred by Kia "The Mix Artist" Shavon. We are introduced to Scott's Trinidadian early childhood and polyrhythmic influences, ushered into the Harlem Renaissance in which her talent blossomed, spun into her molto vivace silver-screen era, and schooled by a 1951 interview in which she explains her love for America and her intolerance for its bigotry. Then we are exiled with her to an artistically simmering, somewhat melancholy Paris before the exaltant wide-view Finale to Scott's raucous and roaring rendition of the Duke Ellington-Johnny Hodges tune "The Jeep is Jumpin.'"

Alexandra Hutchinson, Amanda Smith, Daphne Marcelle Lee, Yinet Fernandez, Ingrid Silva, Delaney Washington, Micah Bullard, Dylan Santos, Sanford Placide, and David Wright danced gorgeously, carrying strength, precision, and grace through the piece's multiple mood swings and pace shifts. Lee beams in the role of a Scott persona in costume designer Mark Zappone's shimmering silver gown. Michael Cole's lighting captures the diffuse Trinidad light, the austerity of the dancers' more subdued, linear movement to Scott's spoken interview, the cool hues in the shift to Paris, and the sheer diva dazzle of the Finale.

I enjoyed Sounds of Hazel, I certainly learned from it, and I admire the persistence of its creators in carrying out the project during and despite the pandemic. I was left, though, wanting more.

It was polished but felt a bit superficial. I wanted to get deeper inside the mind of this artist-activist. I can certainly understand the impulse to celebrate and elevate the legacy of this amazing woman. But what of the jolt of a marriage that didn't last, of a country and an industry that embraced and then betrayed her, the artistic and political layers of an uprooted midlife in expat Paris? A piece that delved further into the psychology, heartache, and resilience of those experiences could be so much more profound. The work, indeed the whole evening, is setless, which is fine -- the dance is the engine. But could it be that Sounds of Hazel is meant to expand into something more choreographically, intellectually, and theatrically ambitious?

In contrast to the other offerings, midway through the evening, DTH dancers Yinet Fernandez and Dylan Santos performed the classical showpiece pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Karel Shook, who co-founded the company with Arthur Mitchell in 1968, choreographed the gallant multi-section duet in the 1970s. Here it highlights Fernandez's virtuoso turns and pointe work and the superpowers of Santos's elegant changement-replete jumps and laser-guided leap-turns. The subtext was: "Hey we're doing a lot of contemporary moves tonight, but these dancers have old-school ballet bona fides and don't you forget it." Message received! (There was a bungled music cue but, shockingly, the world did not end.)

Much as I admired "Sounds of Hazel" and the somewhat jarring 19th-century-steeped time warp of the Corsaire, my favorite work of the evening was the opener, Robert Garland's "Higher Ground," which had its debut in Detroit in January and is set to songs by Stevie Wonder. Journalists are obliged to disclose their biases so let me quietly note that I worship the ground that Stevie Wonder walks on and that my visit to his old Motown studio in Detroit was a religious pilgrimage. His albums, particularly Talking Book and Innervisions, were etched deeply into my childhood auditory cortex.

Perhaps the same is true of Garland, who will succeed Virginia Johnson as artistic director next year, for his choreography fondly wraps ensemble exactitudes and refined balletic techniques around the inescapable social-dance deep vibes of Wonder's synth-heavy tracks. This fusing of formal and informal, arabesque and shimmy, coupé and sway, is wonderfully organic, unapologetic. In minimalistic, flowing, simple earth hues Pamela Allen-Cummings costumes the beautiful Amanda Smith, Daphne Marcelle Lee, Alexandra Hutchinson, Christopher Charles McDaniel, Micah Bullard, and Kouadio Davis. They had wonderful rapport in the circle-blocked phrases and confident finesse in the spun-off solo sections.

Garland says the work "represents a Sankofa-esque reflection on our current times." Sankofa is the Ghanian bird or heart representation of going back, retrieving, remembering. "Look around and you'll see / Ruins of the human history" -- so the lyrics go in the opening "Look Around." With the front-page prospect of nuclear armageddon perched on the edge of a crazed Russian imperialist's mind, well yes ... let's retrieve our memories of 1962, shall we? "You Haven't Done Nothin'" and "Village Ghetto Land" deepen the sense of our American societal quagmire deja vu. But then "Saturn" and "Higher Ground" reflect Wonder's wonder and idealism -- the vague sense of a love-filled alternative universe that we can -- what -- only imagine? escape to the illusion of? discover within ourselves, each other? retreat to? build?

"They say that heaven is ten zillion light years away," Wonder laments. But as I watched Garland's unpretentious, soul-stirring, anguished, hoping-against-hope piece, all of a sudden heaven felt just a little closer.


Run time: just under two hours, including intermission
Tickets are available here for the final performance, 8 p.m. Saturday, October 8.
Photo is courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

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Dance Theatre of Harlem presents the world premiere of 'Sounds of Hazel,' a celebration of Hazel Scott, at Sidney Harman Hall.