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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Soulful Ballet: Dance Theatre of Harlem




For as long as I can remember, I have been an ardent admirer of the dance: from ballet to modern, from African to jazz, from hip hop, to ballroom, from salsa, to break-dance – I love it all.  I was privileged to see the Dance Theatre of Harlem during their recent Philadelphia engagement at the Annenberg Center. The audience generously bestowed the company with hearty, sustained applause, and seemed to genuinely appreciate their artistry. There were, however, some mixed reactions. One friend who attended the performance found it “exhilarating” and was still gushing on her way out of the theater. Another friend thought it was “disappointing,” and while “not awful,” at least one of the ballets was “just plain boring.”

As for me, I personally enjoyed the entire evening and still feel energized from the experience. Lovely. Vivacious. Powerful. These are a  few of the adjectives I would use to describe the beauty, grace and mastery of this internationally-renowned dance institution, a rare gem with roots  in Harlem’s African American community that gives ballet dancers of color an opportunity to pursue professional careers. The company’s school of dance encourages students to pursue excellence on whatever paths their lives take them.  Arthur Mitchell, who was the NewYork City Ballet’s first African American principal dancer, was motivated to co-found the company in 1969 with the late Karel Shook, as a way to honor the legacy and uphold the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Virginia Johnson, who was Dance Theatre of Harlem’s prima ballerina for 20 years, now serves as the company’s artistic director. Another former company dancer, Laveen Naidu, is Dance Theatre of Harlem's executive director.



As I sat in the Annenberg’s Zellerbach Theater, I felt grateful to witness the company’s remarkable resurgence following an unprecedented eight year hiatus, during which time the administration concentrated on fundraising and re-organizing. I remember hearing the devastating news that because of a multimillion dollar deficit, they were shuttering their doors, so I felt an almost spiritual obligation to support their revival. Three ballets were presented the night I attended: “Gloria,” choreographed by Robert Garland; the classic “Agon,” choreographed by George Balanchine and “Contested Space” choreographed by Donald Byrd.

With a floaty, fairy-like presence, prepubescent ballerinas opened and closed “Gloria,” a ballet choreographed in the traditional form by Robert Garland. Current resident choreographer and former principal dancer for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garland hails from Philadelphia; he studied dance under John Hines and Joan Myers Brown. The Mt. Airy native and Creative and Performing Arts High School graduate propelled “Gloria” through a series of poetic and lyrical expressive sequences that were performed with strength and dignity. The spiritual legacy of Harlem inspired the piece, which Garland dedicated to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and its current pastor, the Reverend Calvin Otis Butts, III.

Donald Byrd’s “Contested Space” was the complete antithesis of “Gloria.” I found the choreography invigorating.  Its bold, modern aesthetics skillfully combined the restrained technique of ballet with the audacious attitude of hip hop. The piece was a complex inquiry into the meaning of relationships. I was absolutely blown away by the dancers’ amazing ability to showcase their formidable athleticism while portraying a piercing emotional depth.



In between Garland’s “Gloria” and Byrd’s “Contested Space” the company performed George Balanchine’s “Agon” a break through in dance which premiered on December 1, 1957 to the striking music of Igor Stravinsky. "Agon" was also a break through in race-relations because Arthur Mitchell and a white woman, Diana Adams, danced in the ballet’s central duet, or pas de deux. The legacy of this masterpiece is upheld with integrity by the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s current company. So they truly deserve kudos. And they also deserve props for perpetuating a grand tradition in dance and African American culture, whose greater mission is to “build community, inspire and uplift through the power of art.”
Asante Sana. Peace and Blessings Always

Dance Theatre of Harlem Upcoming Performances:
June 7 & 9, 2013 – Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington, DC
June 18-23, 2013 – Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Lee, Massachusetts