Dance Theatre of Harlem
April 25

Nice to see Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) back in action. The company, which was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, stopped touring in 2004. The pause was intended to last only a few months, but given the recession, the performance drought lasted eight years. The company is back performing with a slimmed down company consisting of 18 dancers and administration mostly made up of former DTH dancers.

DTH is celebrating its 45th season with New York performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall last Thursday through Sunday. The Friday mixed rep bill provided a view of the company’s diversified talents, ranging from a classic Petipa work based on dances from Raymonda (Pas de Dix) to a contemporary piece (Gloria) to a story ballet theater work (past-carry-forward).

The quality of dancing in Pas de Dix was mixed. On the plus side, the lead couple, Ashley Murphy and Da’Von Doane worked well together. Ashley stood out with rapid and smooth bourrées that drew applause from the crowd. 25-year old Da’Von, a dancer in Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch List for 2014, was energetic throughout, showing off his prodigious extension and long legs with several giant split jumps. His turns in second position at the end of the piece were competently performed. Nayara Lopes had a nice solo with triple pirouettes with arms en haut. On the downside, there was some sloppy technique at times with turned in footwork from some of the women. The men had a section that was not always in synch, with some rough landings on double tours and scratchy entrechat six. Frederic Franklin staged the piece in 1983. Frederic died last May and the performance was in tribute to him.

past-carry-forward (2013), choreographed by Tanya Wideman-Davis and Thaddeus Davis, focuses on the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North in the early part of the 20th century. The piece showcases the “dance theater” aspect of Dance Theatre of Harlem quite well. The piece begins with a large photograph of a family illuminated on the back of the stage (from the post-performance discussion, the undated photo portrays a family from the South moving to Chicago). On stage there is a man and woman with suitcases with sounds of a train. The two, highlighted by dramatic lighting by Peter Jakubowski and Peter D. Leonard, are tense as they contemplate their future in an unfamiliar Northern city.

The couple is more confident in the next scene, which is filled with festive 1920s jazz music in a scene presumably representing Harlem. Along with dramatic ballet theater, the jazz and modern dancing is a strong suit for the company as the men ripped off rapid-fire pirouettes and light as air leaps. The next segment shows men going off to war, saying goodbye to their wives/girlfriends. As in most wars, the men are overconfident regarding what lies ahead while their loved ones are appropriately filled with dread. Here again the dancing is impressive.

As a train porter draws an imaginary curtain to separate the past from the present, the piece takes a major turn from a narrative ballet to an abstract work. The last segment is a letdown after the nice narrative part; I found this part unfocused and not particularly memorable. From the program notes, the contemporary work explores what we carry forward from our shared past and how our understanding of each other would change if racism could be lifted. The music is generally ominous and modern, consisting of beeps, clangs, and scratchy sounds. Maybe this segment of past-carry-forward pays dividends from another viewing. I will see the company again in July at Jacob’s Pillow.

The last piece, Gloria (2012), is a tribute to the spiritual legacy of Harlem. Choreographed by Robert Garland, it is dedicated to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and its current pastor the Reverend Calvin Butts III. The seven males are clad in colorful unitards while the women are in short skirts. The spiritual music by Francis Poulenc sounds like church opera music. Steps are largely classical, with the 14 dancers darting in and out of the action in various combinations, reminding me at times of Mark Morris’ Gong.

Memorable segments include the opening “Gloria in excelsis Deo” set to inspiring music. At the end of the segment, the cast of seven men and seven women stand in unison in a triangle with arms outstretched. In another segment set to more somber music, four men and four women stand in a line with arms linked as the lead male, Darius Barnes, solemnly watches Jenelle Figgins quickly bourrée off the stage.

The piece features seven young members of the DTH school, who make an appearance at the beginning and the end. At the end of the piece, after demonstrating basic steps, the students sit on the floor; as they sit, they watch the elder cast members in the finale, imagining their future.

DTH has a busy spring touring schedule, ending with a run at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts on July 9-13.