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When you attend a performance by the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), as exhilarating as that experience is, it is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as what this company does and what they represent. Durham and the surrounding communities had a rare opportunity to see that most visible (to the public) aspect of the company at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham. A nearly full house had their minds and souls blown by an artistic revelation that is often tried – in nearly all the arts – but rarely succeeds: the melding of the traditional with the vernacular of the current age.
DTH was founded in 1969 in the Harlem section of New York City by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, and Karel Shook. Although often referred to as the "first black classical ballet company" it is much more than that. By no means do they restrict their choreography to "classical ballet" (a phrase as vague and nebulous as "classical music"); their current performing roster of fourteen dancers includes numerous ethnicities and backgrounds. DTH's extensive outreach programs, training sessions in schools, commissions, and community involvement make them not only an artistic success in New York, but around the world.
But first, a few remarks concerning some deficiencies in the general presentation. While absence of programs is not uncommon with most non-classical music concerts, that is unacceptable in dance. Regardless of whose responsibility that may be, even a one page listing of the title of the work, the choreographer, music and names of the dancers, would have greatly enhanced the evening. If someone had relied on the listing in the 2/3/16 issue of Indy Week of the works to be performed, they would have been misinformed. Also, it felt like we were sitting outside in the 36-degree cold weather; that may have been at the request of the dancers.
The first work (ascertained by a somewhat garbled announcement) was "Contested Space" choreographed by Donald Byrd. The music can best be described as a pulsating techno style that for the most part is jittery. The dancing is correspondingly a neo-classical style with alternating company and pas de deux sections. In fact, you could easily have substituted Tchaikovsky for the music with no loss of storyline. There were moments where you could see the effect of the constraint of the small stage as many extensions and leaps appeared to be hemmed in a bit. Skintight costumes allowed us to see the enormous beauty of such magnificent bodies poetically moving through time and space. As will be the case for the remainder of this article, attribution of the dancers cannot be listed because of the lack of programs.
Quite often it becomes difficult to create a new work without the inevitable comparison to an existing, similar one that has reached iconic proportions. Such is the case with DTH's "Change" which had its world premiere only 3 nights earlier in Columbia, South Carolina. Choreographed by Dianne McIntyre and set to traditional spirituals sung by the Spelman College Glee Club, as well as original music by Eli Fountain, there are going to be comparisons to Alvin Ailey's "Revelations," one of the most moving and original dances ever conceived. "Change" is quite somber, reflective and even mournful. If this can or should be labeled as "religious" it has little, if any, of the celebratory element. The movement was stunning in its deeply emotive affect. It was reverential without being maudlin and as powerful as a Schubert Adagio. The programming was perfect as it placed this between the impersonality of technology of "Contested Space" and the party time, streetwise uncomplicated fun of the finale.
"Return" might be interpreted as a play on the meaning of that simple word to mean a backwards glance to not only two of the geniuses and icons of African-American music, but at the same time, a nod to some of the techniques of traditional ballet. Sound like an unlikely marriage? It makes perfect sense when you see it. Set to the music of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, "Return" is a joyous celebration of music and dance where the dancers morph from Bolshoi to Soul Train and back again. This warmed the audience up (from the 50 degree theater) and elicited huge gasps of amazement at some of the moves. Among other aspects of this remarkable dance, conceived by Robert Garland, it shows that established classic traditions could co-exist with contemporary cultural creations. As applied to music, Peter Schickele said, "if it sounds good, it is good." A similar concept can be applied to dance, especially when performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem.