Dance Theatre of Harlem hits a melancholy note

After a 25-year absence from Portland, the company dances its somber side.

The last time Dance Theatre of Harlem played Portland, 25 years ago, at the auditorium formerly known as the Civic, the company’s 51 dancers performed a repertory that included, among other works, “Act II of Swan Lake,” company founder Arthur Mitchell’s “John Henry,” John Taras’s exotic, tropical version of “The Firebird,” and John McFall’s contemporary “Toccata e Due Canzoni.” The company was about to go on hiatus for six months, their budget having taken a major hit when touring dates in San Diego and London were cancelled.

Tuesday night, at the Schnitz, the company’s 18 dancers—now under the artistic direction of the great ballerina Virginia Johnson (and I use neither the term great nor ballerina lightly), a founding member of the company—performed four contemporary ballets that with the exception of Christopher Huggins “In the Mirror of Her Memory,” looked, choreographically and visually, distressingly alike. That’s not the direction we like to see company’s go.

The show began with DTH resident choreographer Robert Garland’s “New Bach,” which could also have been viably titled “New Balanchine.” Set to J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, it took considerable gumption for Garland to use music associated with Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” (although the program notes that this is the Violin Concerto in A minor, rather than the Double Violin Concerto in D minor), one of the choreographer’s first works for American dancers and a cornerstone of New York City Ballet’s repertory.

“New Bach” falls easily into the pigeonhole of neo-classical ballet, with a rather casual approach. It’s pretty to look at, and it can be viewed as something of an homage to Balanchine, with its sleek black costumes (not practice clothes however) and colored cyclorama backdrops, used throughout the program. It was basically well-danced by the company, making it a good curtain-raiser, but the floppy-armed port de bras, jazzy as they were intended to be, added nothing and in fact were a distraction from what was good about the performance, namely the speed and attack of the point work and the dancers’ musicality.

Garland’s ballet, in part because of the lively music, did set a cheerful tone.That went away for the rest of the evening, beginning with Huggins’ piece, choreographed to the second movement of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, an elegiac score if ever there was one. Huggins, who danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre for some years, hence his fine-tuned theatrical sense, made “In the Mirror of Her Mind” to benefit Dancers Responding to AIDS, so it’s not exactly upbeat. However, the work for three men and one woman, as danced by Ashley Murphy, who with every yearning twisting of her body speaks, “good-bye, good-bye, farewell,” just as Da’Von Doane, Samuel Wilson and Anthony Savoy do with every stunningly executed spiraling pirouette, Huggins has made something much more interesting than a simple “piece d’occasion.”

Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss”/Rachel Neville

Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss”/Rachel Neville

I’d not seen Huggins’ work before, and would like very much to see what he can do with other themes in future. Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven: Odes to Love and Loss” I have seen other companies do, and I now find it pretty dreary, as sincerely as it was danced, if somewhat wanly, by Doane, Murphy, and Wilson, joined by the lovely Jenelle Figgins, Ingrid Silva, and Dylan Santos. Dove died of AIDS in 1996; this piece premiered in 1993 with the Royal Swedish Ballet and is set, as so many contemporary ballets are, to Arvo Part’s music, in this instance his “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.” As my esteemed colleague and editor Barry Johnson points out, gospel music might have been more suitable (how we do love to tell choreographers what they should have done!), but Dove had lost 13 people he loved in a short period of time, and he likely didn’t feel the joy that underlies the gospel sound. I’ve never found it choreographically interesting, certainly not as interesting as Dove’s 1994 “ Red Angels,” made for New York City Ballet. And the costumes, unflattering white unitards for both men and women, do nothing for either the dancers or the ballet.

Much to my surprise, Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Vessels,” which closed the show, is a thoroughly conventional contemporary ballet, with four sections titled “Light,” “Belief”, “Love” and “Abundance.” Danced on point, with several pas de deux, including one for two men, the vessels of the title are clearly the DTH dancers; this was made specifically on them and premiered in October of last year. The most interesting part of Ezio Bosso’s score was the tolling bells that assisted the transitions between the sections. The circle dances made to drive home Moultrie’s theme that life’s “entire journey is cyclic,” which began to look clichéd after a while, did however reveal that Moultrie does know his craft.

All in all, is it fair of me to make invidious comparisons between the DTH of 1990, when such towering personalities as Lowell Thomas (who taught at Jefferson High School for a while), Eddie J. Shellman, Virginia Johnson, and Lorraine Graves were dancing with the company, not to mention the earlier days when the exquisite Elena Carter (she died in 2006) and Joseph Wyatt, who left the company to settle here in Portland were performing? Or to compare the current low-cost repertory with such expensive productions as “Firebird” and “Creole Giselle,” which is, thank goodness, available on DVD? Probably not; the Schnitz audience cheered throughout the performance, sometimes inappropriately, and as one of the last national dance presenters standing, White Bird is to be commended for bringing the company back.

In time, the current dancers are likely to acquire the finesse and, I hope, the individual personalities of past generations; they are certainly worth following and this program, which repeats tonight with different casting, does have its moments.

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