Who leaves you breathless? Who takes you on a magical ride of emotions ranging from sheer delight to teary-eyed melancholy to amazement and excitement, but never complacency? Who gives you that flirty smile, that intriguing glance, the full spectrum of emotions, all while flittingg across the stage, with feet hardly touching the ground? There’s the technical precision, the lyrical rhythm and the sanguine bodies glistening with sweet sweat–the kind you want to reach out and touch; these bodies glide against the backdrop while your imagination runs wild with a story and interpretation of your own.
It’s the resurrection of the new Dance Theatre of Harlem’s (DTH) classical ballet troop. The troop bears the name proudly and does justice to the dream created by the masters themselves, Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, some five decades ago. DTH held its New York performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, where opening night was all you could imagine it would be; it was straight from a ballet lover’s dreams.
The evening began with the introductions of former prima ballerina and current Artistic Director Virginia Johnson and Executive Director Laveen Naidu. The presentation of the Karel Shook trophy was awarded to the Ford Foundation for its ongoing support that, along with the support of Bloomberg and RBC Capital Markets, made the DTH inaugural New York season possible.
Then, without further ado, the house lights went down, the stage darkened and after a long pause (as in Quaker tradition, where the people sit in moments of silence to collect their thoughts and quiet their souls), the most magnificent performance of the New York ballet season began. It is noteworthy to mention the cast members by name, because each dancer brings a unique style to his or her performance and possesses the ability to dance physically, mentally, artistically and spiritually in unison with the company as a whole. The dance artists who were performing were Michaela DePrince, Chyrstyn Fentroy, Jenelle Figgins, Lindsey Pitts, Gabrielle Salvatto, Ingrid Silva, Stephanie Rae Williams, Fredrick Davis, Da’Von Doane, Taurean Green, Jehbreal Jackson, Dustin James, Francis Lawrence, Anthony Savoy and Samuel Wilson.
The opening night program began with “Agon,” featuring choreography by George Balanchine and music by Igor Stravinsky, and first premiered by DTH on June 27, 1971. “Agon” is the ancient Greek word for “contest.” Mitchell, who is now artistic director emeritus, once danced the central pas de deux (a dance appearing with only a male and female dancer) of “Agon.” Performing the part was an amazing accomplishment for a Black, male dancer back in 1957, and it still is today.
The piece, in true Balanchine style, is highly technical; the timing, the form and every detail of the dancer’s body movement is done with exactness, concentration, awareness, focus and precision. Once all of the ingredients are there, the steps are executed with total abandonment, so that the dancers are listening only to the music and feeling the heart of the audience, which is altogether mind-blowing.
Next on the program was the equally challenging and oh-so-classical “Swan Lake.” “Act III the Pas de Deux” was performed by DePrince and Wilson. What is so special about DTH is that yes, they hit the mark with their technique and ability to dance classical ballet, but it’s what they add to it that makes them outstanding. While it is expected that they, as dancers, make every move seem effortless, even though each step is incredibly hard, DTH dancers never let the audience know. Instead, they manage to bat their eyes and express emotions across their brows to the point where you feel the story they are portraying, even if you don’t know a lick about ballet.
“Act III Pas de Deux” dates back to 1895 and is as technically challenging as one can get. The selection was first staged for DTH in 2012 by former ballerina and renowned coach and teacher Anna-Marie Holmes, who learned the role in St. Petersburg, Russia, from the great Kirov ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya. Wilson performed the role with such vigor and passion that you would think he is really in love with DePrince (for real). DePrince, who was born in Sierra Leone, Africa, orphaned by the civil war there and adopted by an American family when she was 4 years old, led Wilson across the stage with all of the grace and ease of one happily pursued by a suitor in tow.
The final scene was beyond believable when Wilson, on bended knee, kissed the lovely DePrince’s hand and she, with the attitude and the sheer delight of a conqueror, threw her head back with a snap that could crack the wind. True drama, true perfection.
After a brief intermission, the second half of the show began, and the energy continued to rise. “Far But Close,” which premiered Nov. 16, 2012, is a fascinating piece, adding flavor and spice. Choreographed by John Alleyne, with costumes by Emilio Sosa, lighting by Gerald King, text composed and spoken by our Nicole Lewis and our very own Daniel Beaty and music by Daniel Bernard Roumain on violin/piano and Dana Leong on cello, this piece is a mix of ballet and poetry. While Beaty, Lewis and the musicians are hidden in the shadows of a dimly lit portion of the stage, the love story of a man and woman unfolds, meeting by chance, wanting to love but afraid to love; you know, “far but close.” The theme, as portrayed through classical ballet, took the audience to another level, penetrating deep as it made one reflect on a time in one’s own personal relationships when someone was far but close. We’ve all been there, I’m sure–at least if you’re human you have.
It wouldn’t be an Arthur Mitchell ballet experience if the show didn’t end on an upbeat note. Mixing–as only he could–classical ballet technique with the sound of funky soul music, the last piece on the program was “Return.” How fitting a name, because DTH has indeed returned. Women danced en pointe and pirouetted as men jumped and leapt about the stage to the music of James Brown’s “Mother Popcorn,” “I Got the Feeling” and “Superbad” and Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, Baby, Baby” and “Call Me.” The audience’s emotional reactions ranged from laughter to tears, as the artistry was compelling, passionate and perfect.
The show was much like life itself, wherein there are highs and lows. The high was my excitement at the return of DTH and how they surpassed all of my expectations, which were pretty high to begin with. The low was the review by the New York Times. First, I found it completely disrespectful that the Times didn’t think DTH was worthy enough to post a review in the paper’s art section on the day after the premiere performance. That was an insult. Secondly, when they did get around to it on the second day, April 12, the review was appalling.
It is obvious to me, a dancer trained in classical ballet by some of the world’s most illustrious ballet masters in history (no, I am too young to have studied under George Balanchine, but I did study under Arthur Mitchell, Karel Shook, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Vladimir Dubudosky and Madame Darvish; and I studied jazz under Frank Hachette), that the Times‘ ballet critic, Brian Seibert, is either blind or color blind, and quite possibly both; in either case, he should neither critique ballet nor write about it. His article does not deserve the time it would take to rip it apart. Seibert totally misunderstood “Far But Close,” which he called “not a good dance.” That quote alone only serves as proof that he is out of touch not only with Black ballet artists, but with life itself.
Lastly, for Seibert to pass opinion on what Mitchell had in mind with his reference to “Return” is just another level of ignorance. Don’t think, not for a minute, that Johnson and Naidu would ever (emphasis added) let a dancer appear onstage performing a piece, any piece, if the foundation is not what Mitchell has in mind; for who knows him better than his cherished alumni?
This is why I implore you, my dear readers, to support our cultural institutions. Let’s put us on the map and keep us there.
Until next week … kisses.