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Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble

December 18, 2009

The following is a paper I wrote for a ballet class about the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble performance at Vassar. So, the format is very different. It includes a healthy dose of criticism.

Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969. Inspired by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded the company to give the low-income community of Harlem, New York City, a chance to participate in the world of ballet and modern dance. The company has not been active since 2004 where it was put on ‘hiatus’ but the DTH Ensemble, which is made up of older students who are not quite a part of the company, has begun a national tour to commemorate it’s 40th Anniversary. The tour show is an ‘interactive performance’ featuring behind the scenes demonstrations and a Question and Answer segment. At this particular performance, Virginia Johnson, who will take over as director of DTH next year, was in attendance. The performance was beautiful but also strangely awkward. It is highly unlikely that this was the first time the soon-to-be director has watched the ensemble perform but many of the dancers seemed constrained, nervous and unable to really open up to perform. The technique was there but the smiles were a little too forced and the dancers were a little too fearful of their current director, giving the entire performance a very odd feel. However, the repertoire of The Joplin Dances, Fragments, Episode, New Bach and Mother Popcorn were thrilling to watch and a rare treat to see at Vassar.

As the curtain opens and lights rise on the stage, we are greeted with the first dance. The music begins and we are transported back to the time of scratchy record players. The costumes are very similar to other classical ballets with billowing sleeves for the men and matching dresses for the woman but the choreographer, Robert Garland, chose to do his classical ballet not to the classical music of Chopin or Tchaikovsky but to classical ragtime. The Joplin Dances is set to the music of Scott Joplin, James Scott, Joseph Lamb, and Artie Matthews. All of these men are famous for the creation of and their contribution to the ragtime musical genre. Of the four, Joseph Lamb is the only non African-American, which makes the music choice very fitting for a dance company that strives to display and promote the talent of African American artists. Ragtime was most popular in the late 1890s and early 1900s and the performance’s recording was most certainly made during this time. The dance had all the makings of a classical ballet. It included a corps de ballet, which created the landscape, solos performed by women at the beginning, and a pas de deux with the principal man and woman. Keeping up with the ragtime rhythms, the performance was exciting and fast-paced. It did a satisfying job paying homage to the great ragtime composers of that era.

The second dance begins. A man stands, legs apart, with his back to the audience. His solid figure is clearly visible in his shirtless state and even in stillness he exudes power. Two women stand at either side, facing away as if they were statues. The music begins a driving tribal beat and the dancers begin to move with the resulting force. The piece involves partnering between different men and woman and with each connection they display another feat of strength and control. From the beginning, the threesome is completely controlled by the man as he lifts, pulls and pushes the women at the same time. As they leave, another couple enters and begins as the woman throws herself down into a handstand and splits her legs. The man picks her up in this position and turns her around. The finale includes three sets of couples all lifting in unison. At one point the men bring the women up on to their shoulder, then raise their arms up to lift the woman into a splits, turning all the while. It was an exciting show of how much power these dancers contain. The amazement came not from what lifts they were doing but from how slowly and carefully they were executing these difficult tasks with the control that only masters of movement can perform.

The next dance had the most lasting impression upon me. The choreographer is Peter Pucci who came last year and set a piece on VRDT. It is always striking when an influential choreographer is so close to home, but my fascination with this piece comes from a much more visceral place than that. The most striking aspect of this dance is the costume. The two dancers, a man and a woman, are both wearing black and red spandex but the woman has red on her front and black on her back while the man has the opposite positioning. This juxtaposition creates an incredible visual as they dance together. When they are both facing forward, the man’s black front creates a background for the woman’s red front. When they are facing opposite directions, they suddenly seem to be wearing the same outfit. Peter Pucci is an incredibly visual choreographer. A piece I saw earlier this year involved a 13 foot by 13 foot square of white tape and a woman dressed completely in white trying her hardest to get out of it. In both pieces, the colors and lighting were just as important as the dancing. With this costume design, a deeper interpretation of the dance can be reached. Why is it that when they face the same direction, they are sharply separate, but when they face opposite directions, they meld into one? Perhaps Pucci is touching on a relationship that is bound to fail, a relationship that separates when it tries to come together and is at ease when it diverges. Whatever Pucci’s reasoning, it was an incredible dance to watch, both in the costuming as well as the partnering. He was able to transform performers who are dancing into ideas and emotions that swarm around each other and inform the audience.

New Bach is set to Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor. Bach, a classical composer, is an often-used inspiration and score for ballets in our current age. Using classical music such as this with a contemporary ballet is considered ‘neo-classicism.’ The costumes were not in the classical style, as the men were wearing armless leotards with rhinestones. One of the dancers in particular, DaVon Doane, was incredibly expressive. Sitting with my eyes at his eye-level, I felt his gaze pierce mine as he looked into the crowd. The movement went from inside his body and projected beyond, with a performance that made it impossible to look away.

The piece also included some non-classical ballet movement. At a few moments, the dancers would shift their hips back and forth in a nearly hip-hop fashion. It isn’t clear what the intention of the movement was, as choreographed by Robert Garland. On the one side, it’s possible he wanted to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in ballet and insert his own flavor. On the other, maybe he wanted to make sure people new that he had no intention of mimicking or doling out the same ballet as American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet downtown. Whatever the reason, the transition into the movement was a little unsettling and rough and it was difficult to believe that the movement fit within the context of the ballet.

The final piece, Mother Popcorn, is an excerpt from a larger piece entitled Return. Here, the dancers finally really cut loose. Set to James Brown’s music of the same name, the dance is a peppy, athletic and altogether fierce performance. Of the entire show, the costumes show the most skin and the make-up lets the audience know that the Ensemble is ready to party. A soloist dances forcefully with bright shiny lips and the intensity with which she dances lifts the environment into a fervor of activity. At one point, a man steps away from the hustle and bustle of ballet movement to break into the actual ‘popcorn dance.’ The song is actually inspired by this dance that became popular in the late 1960’s. The dancer jigs right and left and kicks his legs as a throw back to a time when soul music took over the hearts and bodies of a then young generation. The excitement lasts throughout the entire dance as James Brown screeches out his famous interjections ‘Good God!,’ ‘Come on!,’ and ‘Popcorn!’ After seeing four dances of relatively low energy, this final dance really brought the performance to a flashy end.

The entire performance did its best to show that African American dancers could perform ballet and other originally European or white dance forms just as well as white or privileged dancers could and in doing so, I felt that it had a decidedly disappointing feel. A great point of reference is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, founded ten years earlier than DTH and also fundamentally African American. The most important distinction between the two companies is that Alvin Ailey is primarily a modern company while DTH is primarily a ballet company. I believe this is why Alvin Ailey is more well known, better established and more highly regarded than DTH. Alvin Ailey set out to do something new and different, and he created more than just original dances. He created an entirely new movement style and vocabulary. His dances are known for their deep spirituality and unparalleled technique. Dance Theatre of Harlem did not do this. Instead of forging a new identity, DTH was created to prove something, and it was designed to show that they could be just the same as other well-known dance companies. In doing so, they don’t bring anything new or exciting to the table. One of DTH’s greatest strengths was their roots in Harlem, African American heritage and African American dancers. When they toured or performed they were not showing the world great dances, they were showing the world that black dancers could dance, when so many didn’t believe this was true.

In 2009, however, this stereotype no longer holds. Alvin Ailey is now incredibly influential and competitive and the dancer it produces is the envy of dancers from around the world. They went beyond Dance Theatre of Harlem’s goals and showed the world that not only are they black dancers, but they are incredible dancers and their technique has become ingrained into how black dancers can be the best dancers in the world. The pieces Ailey has choreographed have become classic modern dances because of their ingenuity, honesty and vision, something that DTH seems to lack. Yes, there is a dance set to ragtime and James Brown but instead of creating their own vocabulary for ballet, they took what has already been established as classical ballet, set different music to it, and introduced movement that doesn’t feel comfortable. The novelty of watching black dancers perform ballet is no longer present, it can now be seen in many places.

DTH seems to be opening up to the idea that there needs to be a change. The new director, sitting in the same audience as myself, will certainly have a lot of control over the company. She was a previous principal dancer for the company and has a very good idea of its past. Perhaps it will be difficult, as a repertory company, to reach the kind of fame and sustainability that they need to without a resident choreographer that can pave a new style of movement, such as Balanchine did with New York City Ballet. But one thing is certain, if Dance Theatre of Harlem seeks to survive, it will need to redefine and make a name for itself outside of who the dancers are and what background they come from. It will be Virginia Johnson’s task to take the company to a new level of dance, and with such beautiful talented dancers and a life of limitless possibility, there is really no reason not to.

My teachers (and Virginia Johnson) disagree with my conclusion and it’s very likely that they are correct, but the performance was disappointing and I tried my best to figure out why. For all I know, it could have been the venue, and the ‘interactive performance’. It might be best not to judge DTH based on this experimental performance by DTHE.

What did you think?

November 8th, 2009
Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater, Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York

One Comment leave one →
  1. Malik permalink
    February 13, 2010 4:47 am

    I simply have one question that should make you re-think your entire paper… Where oh where can I see a primarily all black ensemble of black “Ballet” dancers (cause there is a difference between the word “dancer” and “ballet dancer” in some respect) performing classical ballet be it to Bach or James Brown???

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