20th of February 2012


The Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble (a.k.a., DTH2) made its New York debut at the Joyce Theater (February 7, 9, and 10), performing an eclectic program that ranged from neoclassical to contemporary.  The school has continued during the “hiatus” of the main company, offering high quality ballet training to a diverse range of students.  And  DTH alumnus Keith Saunders directs the Ensemble, which is a proud representation of the training at the school. 

DTH, now under the direction of Virginia Johnson – protégé and muse of founder Arthur Mitchell, the company is getting its financial (and artistic) affairs in order and gearing up to return.  Right after intermission, in fact, “En Avant,” a documentary by Gabrielle Lamb about the school and company served as tribute and preview of DTH’s imminent reawakening. 

The opening ballet, “Six Piano Pieces (Harlem Style)” (2011) by David Fernandez, serves to introduce half of the company’s sixteen dancers, clad in Vernon Ross’s mix-and-match “business casual” clothing.  It’s a formulaic trifle for four couples, set to an eponymous piano score by Moritz Moszkowski, energetically played, live, by Melody Fader.  Despite its uninspired choreography, it does show off the dancers’ clear, unmannered style.  DaVon Doane’s springy jumps with soundless landings, Flavia Garcia’s rock-solid turns and steady balance, and Ingrid Silva’s sparkling personality stand out.  

In Christopher Huggins’s “In the Mirror of her Mind,” Alexandra Jacob Wilson as the protagonist shows disarming dramatic flair and breathtaking physical fearlessness.  Three male foils (Frederick Davis, Jehbreal Jackson, and David Kim), perhaps figures in her dream, toss her around like a rag doll in Huggins’s inventive roughhousing lifts.  Nonetheless, her courageous serenity makes us admire and celebrate her.  Natasha Guruleva’s earth-toned costumes give each dancer individual character and enhance the tone of grounded elegance.

Balanchine’s 1955 “Glinka Pas de Trois” represented the company’s nod to the classic style.  The dance is seldom performed, which is a shame, because its lightning fast allegro variations with intricate direction changes constantly surprise.  Ashley Murphy, Stephanie Williams, and Samuel Wilson dance it with authority and brio in sparkling crimson tutus by Natasha Guruleva; only the man’s black tights and top oddly lacks the same éclat, but Wilson’s steady partnering and unforced virtuosity are praiseworthy.

Donald Byrd always demands that his dancers go balls-to-the-wall in their dynamic attack.  Although his new “Contested Space” may be at least a third too long, it is a stunner.  More than a mere battle of the sexes, the ballet is a complex contest between genders and also individuals, striving for room to breathe.  The physical aggressiveness that can so easily reads as hostility, when treated by other contemporary ballet sensibilities, becomes more like a heated intellectual debate made grippingly physical in the resilient bodies of this affable young cast. 

Byrd’s unique, refreshingly un-generic movement style often derives from having dancers solve physical tasks, which the choreographer then pushes to the limit of kinetic commitment.  Thus, Byrd makes the DTH2 dancers look like seasoned pros, and the dancers perform with clear, consistent focus but without succumbing to the viciousness that Amon Tobin’s relentlessly abrasive score inflicts on it.  

At moments in the other pieces, the dancers’ transitions and eloquence of line are not always consistent, but Byrd makes them move with total commitment and luscious recklessness.  They hold back nothing.  This is the kind of work that DTH needs to be doing more of.   Peter D. Leonard’s lighting throughout is simple and effective.  If this is a taste of what’s to come from DTH, we can’t wait to see more.

(Unfortunately, the company was not able to supply photos of small enough resolution to reproduce)

© Gus Solomons jr, 2012

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