Despite bitter cold and piles of snow, the Dance Theatre of Harlem enjoyed a surprisingly large attendance and the audience, in turn, was treated to a stunning and inspiring performance Feb. 6 at Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center. The program included reconstructed classic choreographies as well as two newer works recently added to the repertoire.
The program opened with the neo-classic George Balanchine ballet, Valse Fantaisie, to music by Mikhal Glinka. Balanchine's delightful and musical choreography was adeptly executed by Alison Stroming and Da'Von Doane, leading an equally talented chorus of four dancers en pointe, all dressed in traditional ballet tutus and tights. It was an accomplished performance by each individual dancer, but seemed to lack a certain "crispness" one usually associates with Balanchine's ensemble work. That said, the company is to be commended for including the work in the program, for it demonstrates the range, ambition, and ability of its dancers.
The program continued with another challenging reconstruction, Chaconne, choreographed by the Modern Dance great, José Limón, to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The work is normally cast as a male role, someone tall and lean with long limbs, since Limón set the original choreography upon himself. This role was creatively cast with a female dancer, Stephanie Rae Williams, who is a strong performer with a compact, muscular body. Although well-mastered and excellently executed by Williams, the paradox of casting a reconstituted work against the original type is that the choreography often needs to be re-adapted or reinterpreted to accommodate a different body type, otherwise some of the original impact might be lost, or different from expectations. Often, living choreographers will tweak their choreography to the current dancer performing the role. With a reconstructed work, however, the goal of the répétiteur is to reproduce the work as close to the original, documented performance as possible. In this case, the work was well-executed by Williams, but did have a different effect performed by her female body instead of a tall, long-limbed male.
After the intermission, the program returned with a new work, System, created by Francesca Harper, and set to music by John Adams. Opening first to silent dancing, this contemporary en pointe ensemble piece was excellent. Dressed in a variety of black outfits and simple lighting, the company seemed very much in their element with this piece. The choreography was complicated and athletic, but the dancers were up to the challenge, executing each combination with crispness, yet liquid muscularity. This piece was a highlight of the program.
This piece also was noteworthy for its social commentary. Often underestimated as cultural practices, dance and music can be effective in illustrating social issues, and in a more visceral manner than more traditional means of narrative.
This piece made reference to migration, refugees, the displaced and conflict between people within the dance. Quoted from Jorge Andres Villarini in the program, "We are the migrants. We are the refugees. We are the displaced. These are our stories. They are our gift to you."
The program closed with a colorful contemporary ballet, Vessels, another recent addition to the company repertoire, choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie and set to music by Ezio Bosso. Dressed in pink and peach, the ensemble demonstrated lively combinations with excellent extensions and elevation. It was a tasty finish to an impressive concert and prompted a standing ovation from the audience.
D. Nicole English teaches in the Sociology Department at Fort Hays State University.