Dance Theatre of Harlem returns to its City Center roots this week with four performances starting Wednesday and running through Saturday. City Center was the home of DTH for many years before the company took an eight year hiatus starting in 2004 due to financial problems. Company leaders have fond memories of City Center; founder Arthur Mitchell made his debut as a dancer with what was then the New York City Center Ballet. Current Artistic Director Virginia Johnson not only danced at City Center but was an usher in her student days. Coming full circle, she gave Agnes de Mille flowers at the end of an ABT performance of Rodeo-and a few years later received flowers as a dancer at the end of a performance of de Mille’s Fall River Legend, according to the program notes.
Wednesday’s program began with a tribute to Geoffrey Holder, the choreographer, actor, director, dancer, painter, costume designer, singer, and voice-over artist who choreographed works for DTH. The company paid tribute to him with a rousing dance from his native Trinidad with dancers from the company and school moving to frenetic beats from two onstage drummers. The work was filled with inspiring and spiritual voiceovers from Holder, emphasizing faith and believing in yourself. Virginia along with Holder’s wife Carmen de Lavallade, and DTH resident choreographer Robert Garland gave tribute speeches on the importance of Holder’s work and his ties to DTH. Particularly noteworthy were Garland’s comments on how Holder’s work with percussion instruments and re-mixes predated and anticipated current hip-hop music.
The first work was Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, Odes to Love and Loss choreographed by Ulysses Dove. The work debuted in 1993, set to string orchestra and bell music by Arvo Pärt. According to the program notes, Dove choreographed the piece after he lost 13 close friends and relatives, among them his father: “I want to tell an experience in movement, a story without words, and create a poetic monument over people I loved.” Dove died at the age of 49 in 1996.
As the curtain opened, dancers were in white unitards set to a stark, black background to somber music. Three women and three men were linked in a circle highlighted by a spotlight. As the piece progressed, various combinations of dancers united and interacted, suggesting changing relationships over time. In one poignant segment, two men danced in two separate spotlights as bells rang. The men danced but eventually fell as three women appeared (Emiko Flanagan, Chyrstyn Fentroy, and Ashley Jackson) and hovered in an angelic presence. The women left the stage as the men embraced. After the embrace, one slowly walked off the stage, leaving one lonely soul in a single spotlight. The work ended with the six dancers in separate spotlights, walking around the stage as if searching for a lost friend as the curtain fell.
The work is not just a dramatic piece, but is technically demanding with numerous turns for men, fouettés and lighter than air bourrees for women. This is the second time I’ve seen the work and DTH pulls off the dramatic and technical aspects very well.
Ashley Murphy and Samuel Wilson were featured in the company premier of Balanchine’s 1977 Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Ashley and Samuel were fine in the the partnering section in this light, cheerful work. In her solos, Ashley excelled in the quick allegro sections, with fast footwork and turns, not allowing the rapid tempo to compromise technique. Samuel’s solos had a few rough edges, including an awkward pirouette/tour section at the end of one solo.
Nacho Duato’s 1991 work Coming Together is set to music by Frederic Rzewski, which features a voice over of a repeated eight sentence text drawn from a letter from a prisoner at Attica Prison, later killed in the 1971 riot. The work is fast moving and exciting at times, but I just didn’t the get the theme. The first part is interesting, with males in black with a letter on their chest moving in various patterns generally using contemporary ballet-type steps. Women appear and the partnering arrangements provide more diversity. A gold curtain falls and out come three women: Lindsey Croop (lilac), Chyrstyn Fentroy (red), and Emiko Flanagan (blush) in long flowing dresses in a strange, combative dance. The curtain goes away with more action including with a pas de deux with two other dancers holding lights to provide illumination and men playing catch with a ball. In the end, the black backdrop is lifted, revealing the bare wall full of pipes and infrastructure of City Center.
The piece was well danced, particularly Da’Von Doane and Anthony Savoy. I enjoyed certain segments but wondered about the cohesiveness of the work and how one section was linked to another. The unrelated segments and lack of cohesion left me puzzled. Darrell Grand Moultrie’s enjoyable Vessels (2014) closed the program.