Dance Theatre of Harlem, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, held its New York season at City Center last week. Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American dancer at New York City Ballet, established DTH 50 years ago after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 as he was determined to provide opportunities for young dancers. The company Gala event Wednesday presented many fond memories of Mitchell, who passed away last September. Ninety-four year old Cicely Tyson was riveting as she reminisced at about the birth of the company, when she received at 2 am phone call from her close friend Mitchell about starting a company. She ultimately was a founding board member. An entertaining historical tribute film directed by Danel Schloss captured through reenactment Mitchell as a young boy in Harlem in 1946 as he dreamed of becoming a dancer; his NYCB days as he rose quickly to Principal Dancer; and the founding of the company. Excerpts from DTH works filled the bill; highlights included DTH alum Ashley Murphy with Da’Von Doane in Mitchell’s The Greatest and the energetic alum Dionne Figgins in Louis Johnson’s Forces of Rhythm.
The works presented Friday were a mix of old and new, all danced to inspiring and fascinating music. I think that half the battle of creating a compelling dance work is music selection. A great score accentuates the strong segments and makes weaker sections bearable. By this standard, Friday was a great success. Check out rehearsal photos on my photography website notmydayjobphotography.com.
DTH Resident Choreographer Robert Garland highlights the music of his new work by naming it after the score, Nyman String Quartet No.2. Michael Nyman’s 1988 work is pure joy, with uplifting and frenetic string work certain to bolster one’s mood even on a down day. Take a listen to the score in the YouTube video below. Garland’s work is dedicated to DTH founder Arthur Mitchell and Harlem-born John Wesley Carlos, who gave a Black Power salute at the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. Informality and community are recurring themes of the work, at times reminding me of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces. Also constant throughout are movements generally seen on the dance floor to popular music such as shoulder and hip shaking, all filled with plenty of self-assured grooving.
The work consists of six segments. The first two are similar, with five men (part I) and women (part II) showing off their moves for the other four. The lead dancer moved back to the line to be replaced by another with a mix of classical ballet steps with styling to the festive, sweeping score. Da’Von Doane, who danced all works Friday, provided an introspective solo to dramatic dim lighting by Roma Flowers. Then the men and women weaved together in an interesting array of steps. The work has a distinct flow and energy, never a dull moment and is as rich as the music. The work ended with all dancers on stage in a line to dark, backlit lighting, each holding up one finger in triumph.
Balamouk (the internet says it is a Romanian word meaning “house of the insane”) choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, had its debut last October in the City Center Fall for Dance festival. The work features group dancing as a community to compelling scores by Les Yeux Noirs, Lisa Gerrard, and René Aubry. Balamouk opens with a group of 10 dancers huddled together lit by a rotating light circle designed by Les Dickert to a throbbing drum beat. Like the previous work, the score is interesting, keeping my attention during the less interesting segments. Balamouk’s strength is close-knit movements among the community. It later strays into pedestrian steps by individual dancers. Fortunately, the Balamouk does not overstay its welcome.
Arthur Mitchell’s Tones debuted in 1971. Mitchell re-imaged the work last summer before his death in September. Tones II is the updated work, which had its debut Friday. Like the original work, Tania León composed the score. León was born in Havana, Cuba and settled in New York City in 1967. She became a founding member of DTH, establishing its music department, music school, and orchestra.
Tones II is a modernistic, neoclassical work that reminds me of Agon and Stravinsky Violin Concerto: stark, bold, simple movements free of distractions with dancers clad in simple gray unitards. Dancers move crisply in unison to the score. Partnering is minimalist with interesting patterns such as men holding the women in a horizontal position and supporting them in a backbend. Noteworthy is how Mitchell presents the human form in unique patterns and positions.
An extended pas de deux from Yinet Fernandez and Da’Von Doane was danced with great intensity, with both featuring robust dynamic timing and fluidity. The work ended with Da’Von in front of a large triangle, representative of unity among the group.
The company brought back Geoffrey Holder’s 1974 work Dougla back last year after a long absence. The wonderful work was presented this season at the Wednesday Gala and on Friday. Holder was an actor, dancer, choreographer, singer, director, and painter who died in 2014. He created several works for DTH including Dougla, a dance inspired by wedding ceremonies of a Dougla couple-a mixed couple in which one partner is of African and the other of Indian descent. The work is fast paced, a wild kaleidoscope of movement to live throbbing music from multiple drummers and flutists (score by Holder and Tania León). Check out my review and photos from last year.