Dance has come to a critical crossroads. It has to either explain itself to new audiences or lose them.
The problem is that people have so little exposure to dance (and the arts, in general) that they think they have to know something about dance to attend a dance performance. Let’s set it straight. There is absolutely no need to know anything about dance to appreciate dance. It’s body language, of which all humans (including babies) are fluent.
But dance companies, including the venerable Dance Theatre of Harlem, feel the pressure to explain to audiences what it is doing. (Even, surprisingly, New York City Ballet has established this practice. Charles Askegard prepped a matinee audience at curtain time just last week.)
Thus, when DTH Ensemble (the company’s education arm) arrived at Proctor’s on Friday night, it did not just dance. Rather, it presented an edutainment — a primer that combined lectures and dances with a little bit of audience interaction serving as comic relief.
In most cases, audiences love the format. However, as a critic, I feel that explanations cut short the main event — the dance. I wish directors would shhhh and let the dance speak.
This is especially true with Dance Theatre of Harlem, which thankfully survived some serious financial setbacks in recent years and has emerged looking marvelous.
Since it was founded by New York City Ballet Principal Arthur Mitchell, DTH shares a bond with City Ballet. Thus, it satisfies the regional thirst for Balanchine by dancing works that has absorbed its aesthetic. For example, Robert Garland’s smart-looking “New Bach” combined the best of Balanchine’s vocabulary and form with an updated look. Though straight from the Balanchine playbook, its bouncy shoulders and street dance airs is what Balanchine would have looked like if he were alive today. But the bright “New Bach” came at the end.
The program began with the dancers demonstrating a class, first the barre and the center work. Director Keith Saunders explained ballet’s French origins, remaining today in its turned-out shape and pointe shoes. He discussed the colored tights and shoes that lend the black dancer an unbroken line. And he explained what the audience would be experiencing.
Perhaps that was a good thing as this audience was not your typical ballet crowd. In the stunning duet “Episode,” choreographed by Peter Pucci, the audience clapped for every move as if the dancers were a circus act. But again, the dancers, who ignited a fire with their sharp and rippled moves, appreciated the awe and adulation. They deserved it.
A nondance highlight was when Saunders invited three men on stage to show them the basics of partnering a ballerina. Unbeknownst to him, former New York City Ballet soloist Robert Maiorano was one of the three. Of course, he needs no mentoring as he partnered some of the greatest ballerinas of his day. He feigned ignorance while taking instruction and then supported his ballerina in arabesque promenade and penchee like the pro that he is.
Though I dislike the talk, the dancing and the piano accompaniment by Aryo Wicaksono were superb. Does that mean DTH will return for a full performance? Let’s hope.