A Jolt of Energy: Dance Theater of Harlem at U of M

 In Archives, Dd Response

On Tuesday, February 17, 2015 Dance Theater of Harlem returned to the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium for a one-night only performance. The house was packed. Ultimately, it led me to reflect on a recent topic in the dance world, both online and off: the state of dance in our times. Is it a thriving community in which artists are pushing boundaries, making discoveries, and changing the course of history? Or is it stagnant, as one journalist has suggested?

The program opened with Alvin Ailey’s “The Lark Ascending” (1972), a ballet for twelve people set to Ralph Vaugh Williams’ romantic, orchestral score of the same name. Through spirited grands battements and variations on an impassioned first arabesque, the cast created an energetic atmosphere that lingered onstage for the rest of the evening.

“The Lark Ascending” Photo by: Amitava Sarkar

Second was “In the Mirror of Her Mind” (2011), a physically demanding quartet choreographed by Christopher Huggins with music by Henryk Goreski. The piece was first created to benefit Dancers Responding to AIDS. At the outset, a woman–Ashley Murphy–laid in the center of the stage, dressed in red  and surrounded by three men. She lifted up off of the floor, darted downstage with lightning fast bourees, and met up with one of the male dancers. Thus began a series of intricate partnering sequences between the four dancers.  Huggin’s choreography called for quite a bit of daring on the part of the performers, whose trust in one another seemed unshakeable.“In the Mirror of Her Mind” finished with the Murphy in her starting position while the male dancers walked upstage in unison, facing away from her. The piece was a poignant reflection on complexities of human relationships. I was particularly impressed by Murphy, who is not only a brilliant technician, but seemed fearless.

“In the Mirror of Her Mind” Photo by: Renata Pavam

George Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957) came third in the program. Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky collaborated to create this ballet, whose Ancient Greek name translates to “contest” in English. In it, twelve dancers move through a series of solos, duets, trios, and quartets based on 17th century court dances.

Arthur Mitchell, DTH Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus, danced the central pas de deux at the premiere of Agon. While the stark costuming and hyper-precise choreography revealed some inconsistencies in the technical skill and stage presence of DTH’s roster of dancers, those same components also highlighted some members of the company—such as Da’Von Doane and Emiko Flanagan—as strong and captivating performers.

“Agon” Photo courtesy: DTH

Rounding out the evening was “Return” (1999), a quintessential piece of DTH repertory choreographed by Robert Garland. Set to songs of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, “Return” blends classical ballet vocabulary with pedestrian movements. Garland’s choreography incorporated a range of formations from staggered lines to a Soul Train. It was a fun, neoclassical conclusion to the evening.

DTH in “Return” Photo by: Matthew Murphy

Dance Theater of Harlem’s performance at University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium prompted my deeper consideration of the statements by Huffington Post contributor Alexandra Villareal in her recently released an article entitled  “Why Maddie Ziegler Matters to the Dance World.” According to Villareal, Ziegler (of Dance Moms and music video fame) “lends hope to a dying field.” Villareal’s grounds for her claim are summed up in the following excerpt:

“…other than a few revolutionary moments from the likes of Bill T. Jones, Jessica Lang, Mark Morris, Ms. [Twyla] Tharp, and Kyle Abraham, not much has happened in the dance world since way back in the 1960s with the Judson Church. Or perhaps it has, but it hasn’t taken the shape of innovation. Likewise, the primas of the 20th century–Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera, Xiomara Reyes, Ms. [Wendy] Whelan, Aurélie Dupont, Carla Körbes–are hanging up their pointe shoes, and with them the dignity of the ballet. Replacing these are the millennials, an especially lazy and self-indulgent lot when it comes to performance. They lust to be stars without putting in the work to deserve the title….”

On my first reading of Villareal’s piece, I found her position inaccurate and problematic. Leaving Dance Theater of Harlem’s program, I had a clearer sense of why I drew that conclusion. Villareal’s description of millenial ballet dancers simply did not describe the caliber of dancer I saw onstage. By asserting that our dance world lacks innovation and revolution, she disregarded works like Huggins’ and Garland’s, but provided no compelling basis. And her list of individuals who once kept the dance world afloat, reflects an insular—thus not particularly revolutionary—perspective of the dance companies and dance forms that “matter.”

Perhaps, instead just of yearning for the past and grasping toward the future, we should take a good look at what we have going on in the dance world right now. There’s a lot to celebrate.

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