Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

October 15, 2016

Carmel Morgan

The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), with its racially diverse company members, presented an equally diverse program, featuring works by African American choreographers Ulysses Dove, Francesca Harper and Robert Garland. Both Harper and Garland are former DTH dancers, and the immensely talented Dove was a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who tragically died in 1996 at the age of 49 of an AIDS-related illness. Dove’s heartfelt Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven opened the program. This 1993 work, to Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, was commissioned by the Royal Swedish Ballet, and it strikes many emotional chords. The ballet is apparently about love and loss and friendship, and those themes definitely come through.

In all white unitards, like angels or spirits, the dancers explore relationships. Bells toll, the music repeats and movement motifs emerge. Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven is, in turns, strong and delicate, with a sense of distinct distance. Much of the dancing takes place in a circle, or on a diagonal. Often, the dancers use  a wide second position, with the right foot in relevé. The women boureé backward with their arms at their sides, like upright arrows being slowly slung into the past. Particularly moving is a duet between two male dancers. With their backs to the audience, one slips under the other’s outstretched arm, fitting into a side embrace, only to walk away, leaving the other dancer alone, his arm resting on no one. The absence is keenly felt. At some points, the dancers pace around and around. Are they waiting, mourning?  

Dance Theatre of Harlem in Ulysses Dove's Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, photo by Rachel Neville

Dance Theatre of Harlem in Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, photo by Rachel Neville

Next on the program was a challenging work by Harper, System, accompanied live by the excellent Attaca Quartet (Amy Schoder, violin; Keiko Tokunaga, violin; Nathan Schram, viola and Andrew Yee, cello). System is a new work, having just premiered on October 1, 2016. And it’s very complex, as is the somewhat dissonant music by John Adams. The dancers wear different black costumes, some with glitter and/or a short half skirt over one hip. System is visually busy, even chaotic. To me, the dancing is more often than not muddled, perhaps too fast to properly take in. It frequently feels hurried. There are odd, prolonged moments during which the dancers come to the front of the stage and stare straight at the audience as if we are menaces. The dancers look alternately fascinated and fearful.

I found System less easy to comprehend than Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, and less compelling, but I did enjoy some of its weirdness. There is a repeated movement in which a pair of women, in deep pliés, stick a bent arm under their chins, resting their heads on their hands. The men run, leap, and then purposefully skid now and then. Jorge Andres Villarini can’t help but stand out as a dancer. He’s exceedingly tall, with long arms and legs that go on forever. He wrapped his arms behind his waist and suddenly fell to his knees.

The final work on the program, Garland’s Return, is a crowd pleaser, destined to be elected as a closing work due to its fun nature. The music, including tunes by James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Carolyn Franklin, makes you smile, and smile, and smile again, and the dancers have this same effect. Of course, there is humor built into the work. Here, Villarini, with his impressive height, got down on par with the rest of the dancers. In fact, his funky grooves were intoxicatingly amusing and delightful. In the last section, Superbad, Da ’Von Doane executed a series of flawless pirouettes.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the dancers loosen up. Yet what is most remarkable about Return is how much ballet vocabulary it retains. One cannot mistake this piece for anything other than a contemporary ballet. Yes, the dancers giggle their hips and flash knowing grins, but they also, overall, largely maintain balletic lines and composure. Return is a hoot, and is an unabashed ballet to boot!

DTH has some especially captivating male dancers right now. In addition to the long-limbed Villarini, Doane, Dylan Santos, Jordan Kindell, and Choong Hoon Lee all caught my eye. Lee, perhaps, holds the most promise. He really emotes while dancing with precision, too. The women were less steady (literally, there was an unfortunate slip and fall). Among them, however, Chyrstyn Fentroy, rose above the rest. She embodies elegance, grace, and power, and I hope to see more of her in the future.