Dance Theatre of Harlem is back and the company is anxious to show audiences that it may be smaller, but it’s as strong ever.
That was clear as the newly revived company, which disbanded nine years ago, opened the 81st season of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The iconic ensemble presented a generous program of works that demonstrated the new crop of dancers’ versatility. And while the evening ran too long, it was gratifying to see that this vital cultural institution, one that shattered the color line in dance, can indeed again soar toward a bright future.
Dance Theatre of Harlem
WHERE: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, Mass.
WHEN: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $75 to $39
MORE INFO: 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
The company’s history, with its founder New York City Ballet’s Arthur Mitchell, is fascinating. Yet on opening night, the company handed down another history lesson, one on ballet, from classical with the black swan pas de deux from “Swan Lake” to contemporary with “Return,” a work that strutted to the sounds of James Brown and Aretha Franklin.
The company, now directed by former DTH ballerina and star Virginia Johnson, started the evening in motion with George Balanchine’s “Agon.” The choice was likely making the statement that DTH is cognizant and reverent of its roots as this is one of the many Balanchine roles that Mitchell originated.
However, on the small Pillow stage, this expansive Stravinsky/Balanchine work took on a denser look. Gone was its breathy dimension, which was replaced with a compact tension.
This did not choke the ballet, however, which still radiated as a masterpiece of neoclassical innovation. And while “Agon” got off to a false start, with miscued music, and some of the male dancers are not fully comfortable with the Balanchine style, the dancers did their best to maintain the jazzy and regal feel of the off-kilter piece.
In the classical realm, Michaela DePrince and Samuel Wilson fared better in the Act 3 “Swan Lake” pas de deux. DePrince, playing the vile Odile, was delightfully chilly as she seduced the unwitting prince. In addition, both were fine technicians with DePrince whipping off the necessary number of fouettes with doubles and Wilson launching into clean entrechats.
On better footing
The company found its surest footing in the second half of the evening with the contemporary works by John Alleyne and resident choreographer Robert Garland.
Alleyne’s “Far But Close” was a curious work that explored a complicated love relationship. Ashley Murphy was a spitfire as “the pretty black girl” who was courted by the Da’Von Doane, a rock of a dancer. Set to a poetic narrative text by Daniel Beaty and music by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the romance was proceeded and interrupted by another couple, danced by Stephanie Rae Williams and Jehbreal Jackson, whose odd, but gorgeous and liquid presence was never made clear.
The evening ended with the hip and rousing “Return,” by Garland, a former DTH dancer himself. Obviously, this fun swaggering parade is a celebration of DTH’s resurrection. To R&B songs like “Mother Popcorn” and “Superbad” by Brown and “Call Me” by Franklin, the entire ensemble flounced and flaunted their stuff in an exuberant display of dash.
The program was rounded out by Alvin Ailey’s beautiful and otherworldly “The Lark Ascending.”