Dance Theatre of Harlem
City Center
New York, New York

April 7, 2018, evening
Valse Fantasie, This Bitter Earth, Harlem On My Mind, Dougla

– by Jerry Hochman

Dance Theatre of Harlem is a jewel in New York’s dance history, and that it continues to survive and flourish is a testament to the vision of its founder, former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Arthur Mitchell, and its current Artistic Director and former Principal Dancer, Virginia Williams.  But although the sold-out audience roared its approval of most of the program’s dances and performances, something was lacking in Saturday evening’s City Center program. It’s not because the dancers didn’t dance well, they did. But that quality that elevates a good performance into a great performance was missing, particularly from the ballets.

The centerpiece of the evening – and of the engagement – was the revival of Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla.

A charismatic dancer, choreographer, actor, and artist (whom even those unfamiliar with his theatrical and artistic accomplishments will recall as the spokesperson for 7-Up – “the un-cola” – during the 70s and early 80s), Holder created Dougla for DTH in 1974.  As lovingly resurrected here, Dougla is a memorable work of theater, but its significance as a dance is more tenuous.

Dougla is a word descriptive of persons of mixed race and ethnicity (African and Indian), and is usually applied to such persons from the Caribbean Islands. [Holder was born in Trinidad.]  Dougla, the dance, commemorates the blending of these races / ethnicities in the form of a symbolic wedding celebration. It is an extraordinary vivid visual representation – but it’s far more weighted in ceremony and not unreasonable ethnic pride than in movement. In that respect, it’s remindful of the opening sequences in George Balanchine’s 1958 Stars and Stripes (replace the marches of John Philip Souza with the relentless beat of African/Islands drums), and maybe even more strongly of his 1977 Union Jack, with its parade of clans. But where the opening parades there were the preparation for the dances that gradually infused them, the movement in Dougla rarely goes beyond the ceremonial.

Dougla, performed barefoot, excels, and revels, in its theatricality. Far more than the movement, the images are what dominate this piece, and they’re mesmerizing. The colors of the costumes (designed by Holder, and reconstructed by Vernon Ross and Pamela Cummings) and of the stage by direct illumination and projection (original lighting by Paul Sullivan, revival lighting by Clifton Taylor) are the bright, rich colors of the Caribbean, and the presentation as a whole is a slow-moving but magnificent, and unforgettable, visual tapestry.  [The piece was restaged by Charmaine Hunter, Kellye A. Saunders, Keith Saunders, and Donald Williams, and reconstructed under the supervision of Leo Holder, Geoffrey and his wife Carmen de Lavallade’s son.]

But as vibrant as Dougla is, the costumes – particularly for the women – are limiting. Consequently, the women don’t do much beyond looking gorgeous in their costumes, posing, and bobbing their heads to the drumbeat. The men are initially outfitted in vivid red robe-like garments, which are eventually discarded in favor of virtually nothing – light brown modified thongs, at times with little balls of red popping up from unexpected places.  The absence of a restrictive costume allows – and impels – the men to handle most of the movement that goes beyond ceremonial parading and pounding staffs into the stage floor with each drumbeat. And most of this movement is assigned to one man – Anthony Santos – who is extraordinary in his stoic but physically animated movement.

It appears to me that the women are supposed to be the Indian/Hindu side of the family, with the men being the African side, but that may just be my imposing my own interpretation and not be either historically accurate or what Holder intended.  But whichever side of the family the men and women represent, or whether they represent one or the other side of the Dougla ethnic heritage at all, clearly the men are dominant and the women submissive.  It may well be that that is an accurate account of the relative positons of the sexes and/or the ethnicities in the West Indies, but such historically accurate portrayals have prompted righteous indignation from some critics in other contexts.

For me, aside from its visual pageantry, the best part of the dance was after it ended, when the cast assembled group by group to the increasingly frenzied and undeniably thrilling drumbeating by the Dougla Ensemble (the music, conducted by David LaMarche, was originally created by Holder and Tania Leon), and Santos repeatedly (and intentionally) tosses one side or the other of his red cape over his shoulder and into the faces of the woman taking bows alongside him.  The rigid, serious, ceremonial expressions of Santos and the two women never changed, but the lightheartedness was a welcome relief from Dougla’s otherwise overwhelming intensity.

I must note, however, that notwithstanding my hesitation, the audience rose en masse when the piece ended, as if they’d just seen a revelation.  Clearly, the dance, whatever its choreographic merits may have been, was a decided success with DTH’s audience.

Less successful were the ballets that preceded it on the program. To me, Valse Fantasie, which opened the program, is one of Balanchine’s lesser pieces.  While it celebrates speed and constant movement, it displays little more than that.  If there’s anything beyond a display of steps, it’s up to the dancers to show it.  Here, Alison Stroming and Da’ Von Doane in the lead roles danced the steps, but added nothing beyond that.  To some, that may be perfectly appropriate for this Balanchine piece, but the constant pasted-on smiles and into-the-ground execution made it appear that this was something that the dancers didn’t really want to perform.  It was received politely, with scattered lonely whoops emanating from the back of the house.

Immediately preceding Dougla on the program, the New York premiere of Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Harlem On My Mind energized both the dancers involved and the audience.  According to the program notes, Moultrie intended to celebrate jazz music and its expression in Harlem’s history.  That it does.  The opening segment, titled “Out and About,” to a mashup of music by Count Basie & His Orchestra, was appropriately sprightly, and I appreciated the way Moultrie presented the ten dancers collectively and individually.  To my eye, Ingrid Silva, Crystral Serrano, and particularly Yinet Fernandez were the standouts. In the second segment, “Harlem’s Finest,” loose-limbed, rubbery Anthony Santos performed memorably, as did Stroming and Jorge Andres Villarini in the “Duo de Jazzin’ segment.  The choreography for the penultimate “Soul of the Hood” segment, to Chris Botti’s jazz rendition of Rogers& Hart’s My Funny Valentine, seemed strange and forced to me, but Dylan Santos did a fine job with it.  The piece concluded vibrantly with the “We Rise” segment.

To me, the most revealing piece on the program was the rendition of Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux, This Bitter Earth.  Stephanie Rae Williams and Choong Hoon Lee executed Wheeldon’s choreography superbly, and Williams, a company veteran whose work I’ve admired in the past, was flawless.  But it was also emotionless.

Choreographed to a mix of the unforgettable song (with lyrics by Clyde Otis and a vocal rendition by Dinah Washington) with excerpts from Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, This Bitter Earth is not an unknown quantity. I saw it at its premiere, and at a preview before its formal premiere (at a NYCB gala), and several times thereafter. It’s not just a magnificent example of choreography, and it’s more than just complex steps and partnering.  And it’s the “more” that was missing in this performance.  I sensed not an ounce of emotional involvement in this performance – and that emotional involvement, the communication of the meaning of the lyrics and the delivery of the song, that is essential to this pas de deux. Without it, This Bitter Earth not nearly as special as it is.

But it seemed to me that this absence of emotional content was intentional.  Aside from not seeing any emotion on the dancers’ faces, the atmosphere here was completely different from the way the dance was initially presented.  Then, there was a sense of barren fields, of empty lives, of perseverance in the face of apparent insurmountable failure.  Here, the atmosphere was abstract and colorful. Solid swaths of green and purple/blue for both the projected lighting against the back scrim and the costumes subverted the message of the music.  A by-the-numbers execution was appropriate in this context, but the soul of the pas de deux was lost.

But the DTH audience had no way of knowing this.  They loved it.  And there was no reason for them not to – after all, it was executed flawlessly.

So how do you deal with a situation in which ballet is DTH’s apparent reason for being, defining ballet for our times is its goal, but that goal may be unattainable in a city in which ballet is performed by world class dancers as it should be (and when it’s not, the dancers are called on it – most of the time), what’s done has most often been done before, and when the market for talented minority dancers in companies around the world, and particular in the U.S., is hot?

I suppose you do exactly what DTH is doing: showing the best of what it has to offer without regard to what may or may not be happening around them, cultivating an audience by presenting dances with cultural significance as well as those grounded in ballet technique, and most of all, surviving and prospering (I’ve included references to the audience responses to each of these dances for a reason).  In the end, that’s a good thing – perhaps the most important thing.  And maybe the message is that for certain performances and certain companies, reviewers should just sit back and enjoy the mutual admiration that’s surrounds them.