Dance Theatre of Harlem at Sidney Harman Hall by Luella Christopher

By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
Dance Theatre of Harlem

Sidney Harman Hall
Washington, D.C.
October 10, 2015

The much anticipated return to the nation’s capital of New York-based Dance Theatre of Harlem generated the same level of excitement transpiring outside the hall on a sunny Saturday with the Million Man March. (Participants descended on Penn Quarter with T-shirts touting that “Black Lives Matter” and decrying the fate of a recent victim of police violence, who shortly before his death moaned: “I Can’t Breathe”.) A powerful complement to the street marchers, as well as a temporary respite from but reminder of the darkness and division caused by discrimination against minorities, the pioneering racially diverse Harlem company unveiled its recent April 2015 premiere of “Coming Together”. The performance of the 1991 sociopolitical ballet by choreographer Nacho Duato occupied the entire second half of the program at the Saturday matinee attended by this writer.

“Coming Together”, along with two other large ensemble works, revealed a concerted but occasionally strained effort by the various choreographers to palpably fuse classical ballet and modern dance. How many times can they deploy dancers to smartly execute barrel turns and supported lifts, followed abruptly by windmill arms and deep knee bends in open position? What was meant by the brief “reverse pas de quatre” facing the back wall? Maybe it connotes a banding together by male counterparts of “oppressed cygnets” at Swan Lake attempting to break free.

Duato’s work suffered from a well-intentioned but barely audible recorded narrative, mainly due to the pounding music. That narrative was central to grasping the histrionics experienced by political prisoners detained before and after the 1971 Attica riots in New York State that inspired the dedicated musical composition by Frederic Rzewski. Fortunately, the extracted May 16, 1970 letter by prisoner Sam Melville was printed in the program.

The repetitive musical structure conceived by Rzewski recalled works by American composer Philip Glass and superbly matched the choreography. Excessive onstage smoke, while appropriate to the subject matter, did not register a connection (as a visual of the Attica riots, for example) without a better sound projection of the narrative.

Duato’s homage to Attica followed the 2012 work “Contested Space” by choreographer Donald Byrd (music by Aman Tobin). Described in program notes as a “suite of contemporary couplings and relationships” constructed in Byrd’s post neoclassical style, the work featured super-charged Forsythe poses and use of humor, as in one moment when a female dancer “fake-clocks” her partner or digs at the air. There’s a contest between two male dancers for the attention of one woman in particular. The female dancers look overly muscular; pulsating chests hint that they may even exceed their male counterparts in bravura. As in the final work by Duato, the technical refinement of Brazilian-born Dylan Santos repeatedly caught my eye, especially his graceful lines and leg extensions.

Continuing to work backward in the program, Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” presented an opportunity for Harlem principals to display their neoclassical prowess. California-born Chyrstn Fentroy delivered on snappy piqué turns and single fouettés interlaced with doubles. Puerto Rican-born Jorge Andres Villarini proved an able partner in moves like the split-leap, “wrap-around” and fish dive. However, Villarini needs to bring more strength and verve – in essence, confidence – to his solo section. Jetés were tentative, lagging a tad behind the beat. The roles in the duet were danced by Nayara Lopes and Francis Lawrence at performances on Oct. 9th and the evening of Oct. 10th.

The first work of the evening, “Vessels” (2014), showcased choreography by Daniel Grand Moultrie to the music of “Bitter Soul” by Ezio Bosso, originally created for Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid. The ensemble enters the stage as silhouettes, immediately launching into a plethora of quicksilver bourrées, assemblés and chainé tours. As with the evening’s other works, there are multiple poses and knee bends in second (open) position, as well as the less common upright shoulder-level (supported) fish dive. The ballet is divided into sections entitled “Light”, “Belief”, “Love” and “Abundance”, the most cohesive of which was “Belief” – a quartet for female dancers. “Love”, the duet, was performed by Brazilian-born Nayara Lopes and Aussi Francis Lawrence. Fewer notes were taken on the work by this writer, who was acclimating to the look and feel of a company much venerated but not viewed for several years.

Copyright © 2015 by Luella Christopher