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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 17, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 11
Dance Theatre of Harlem presents intricate program of classic and modern choreography
Arts & Entertainment
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Dance Theatre of Harlem presents intricate program of classic and modern choreography

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM?
PARAMOUNT THEATRE
March 11


The Paramount - Seattle Theatre Group's 1928 movie palace of lavish design - was the perfect setting for the venerable Dance Theatre of Harlem. The gold decorations and scarlet carpet, ornamental chandeliers and winding staircases framed DTH's intricate program of classic and modern choreography with appropriate style and elegance. The packed audience was one of the most diverse groups of Seattleites you can imagine - young, old, every gender, every race - and all excited. Entire classes of students lined up in front of the stage, in the lobby, and on the sweeping staircase to have their pictures taken together - testament to the effort DTH makes to connect with the community in general and young people in particular as they tour the nation.

The company, now celebrating its 47th anniversary, was founded by the first African American male ballet dancer to rise to stardom - New York City Ballet's Arthur Mitchell. In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Mitchell decided to give his life to making ballet and professional dance available to those who were denied access to training and performance opportunities because of their race. As a result, DTH is not only an accomplished company that brings dance to communities around the country, but it is also a school for young dancers in Harlem that provides a professional pathway for dancers of color to enter the mainstream of the arts in America. Its community engagement program also enables young people who have never seen professional dance to encounter this great art for the first time, and to imagine that anyone can grow up to be a ballet dancer. It's a wonderful company with a noble cause that enriches everyone who sees it. I was certainly enriched by the long, ambitious program that the sixteen-member company performed in four sections with two intermissions. Here are the dances in order of performance:

'New Bach' choreographed by Robert Garland to Bach's Violin Concerto in A minor
Garland, a former DTH principal dancer, was trained in dance and choreography by Arthur Mitchell, which makes him a choreographic grandson of the great George Balanchine. That relationship was on full display in this beautifully arranged and executed dance in three movements. We saw the expert movement of dancers through patterns across the stage, the sassy cocked hip and high kicks Mr. B. introduced for Mitchell's own partners, and the speed and precision that characterizes this era of choreography. Garland's own personality shone through as the dancers snapped their fingers and shook their shoulders at key moments in an otherwise classic work. Bach was new, indeed - and very charming.

'Chaconne' choreographed by José Limón to Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor
This was my favorite dance of the evening - a mesmerizing solo performed by the elegant Dylan Santos. Limón choreographed this for himself, but it's also performed by women now, as it was on the following night by Stephanie Rae Williams. I wish I could have seen them both, but I was bowled over by Santos, whose slow, disciplined movement in a wine-colored velvet costume showed the Spanish dance form to perfection. A chaconne is a slow court dance that was brought to baroque Spain via the Moors. It conjures up a lost world of nobility, style, and self-reflection in its deliberate patterns of movement and gesture. While I tried to take precise notes as this gorgeous dance unspooled, I found myself writing 'I adore this choreography!' and 'I could watch this dancer all night!' Some gestures are fixed in my mind - a frozen arabesque slowly sinking, rising, and sinking again on twelve excruciatingly prolonged chords - which show the introspection and control of this beautiful dance. It was simply fabulous and performed by a terrific dancer.

'System' choreographed by Francesca Harper to music by John Adams performed by Seattle Symphony String Quartet
'System' began in silence as a group of dancers entered and performed a variety of moves that, to their credit, were lightly done despite several major jumps that could have sounded clumpy. I'm not a fan of silent dancing. It always makes me wonder if something is amiss, which I think is the point of Harper's dance about immigrants and refugees seeking a new life. If I hadn't read the program notes, however, I would not have been able to discern this idea from the dance itself, or from the sparkly costumes that seemed to contradict the narrative suggested in the program.

Fortunately the music began about five minutes in - John Adam's string quartet, played live by the Seattle Symphony Quartet.

It's always great to see dance performed to live music, and this percussive, busy work was not an easy piece to play. It was an excellent choice by Francesca Harper, however, a choreographer and dancer deeply engaged in the world of New York theater arts and of African American dance performance. Her mother, Denise Jefferson, directs the Alvin Ailey School of dance, so it's no wonder Francesca developed into a choreographer of national and international renown. The audience loved this dance that had some amazing 'Hey! Do that again!' moments. For me it was disjointed and kaleidoscopic, its meaning somewhat obscure. As it ended again in silence I had a chance to appreciate the intensity and commitment of the dancers who are more exposed when music is absent.

'Coming Together' choreographed by Nacho Duarto, music by Frederic Rzewski
José Limón is surely a great influence on Duarto, whose over-the-head arm movements and flexible placement of the torso characterizes groups of dancers moving across the stage like a flowing alphabet. Their shared subject matter of the individual search for meaning in a world of war and revolution, and the dilemma of communities caught in hard times, is expressed in a body of work for which both choreographers are justly known. To see a Limón work on the same program as Duarto was a great choice for those of us interested in the continuity and renewal of dance tradition. The Doris Humphrey-José Limón technique on display in Duarto's work shows both deep understanding and a brave renewal of a core tradition in modern dance.

This final presentation of the evening shows Duarto at his best - big, dramatic gestures, expert control over group movement, new inventions of familiar patterns. 'Coming Together' was set to a repeated text of Attica prisoner and war protester Sam Melville, whose optimistic description of his health and hopes drives this excited, joyful dance despite the dramatic irony of a disastrous future (as those who remember the Attica riots will recall). A percussive piano background to the spoken word fueled the pin-wheeling arms, screwdriver pirouettes, and deep fifth position poses that rivet the audience from the beginning. I loved the alternating rhythm of groups racing in by threes, establishing a pattern, racing out again for the next group to race in and perform a variation on the previous movement. The settings were adjunct to the drama without stealing the show, though three women dancing in flowing gowns in front of a gold lamé curtain was more than spectacular. The final sequence of six dancers in alternating rows with the men circling under the upraised arms of the women was startling and satisfying in a way only dance can be when it continues an already thrilling, and deeply meaningful, dance tradition.

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