Review: Dance Theatre of Harlem comes full circle with stirring Broad Stage program
It might take a little longer yet before we can forget that Dance Theatre of Harlem almost didn’t make it, that the main company was stilled by financial and administrative turmoil for eight long years ending in 2012.
So as the dancers promenaded onstage Friday night at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, I wanted to hold my breath, waiting to take the company’s collective pulse and make certain that everything was indeed OK. And, sure enough, any concerns soon fell away.
Now led by its former prima ballerina, Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem is one-third of its former full-strength self, topping out at an ensemble of 16 men and women. It is mighty nonetheless. In a mixed repertory program, the group displayed three sides of its essential profile: classy, earnest and potent.
The opener, resident choreographer Robert Garland’s “Brahms Variations” (2016), was a welcome card of sorts, inspired by two patrons of the ballet whose lives are separated by centuries: Louis XIV and Arthur Mitchell, who is Dance Theatre of Harlem’s indefatigable co-founder. The five couples paraded through courtly processions and bows, glowing but slightly whimsical looks on their faces.
Garland gives the dancers phrases of unvarnished classical purity, showing off the symmetrical beauty that comes from the proper angled positioning of every body part. This less flashy side of ballet is far more difficult to get right than it might appear.
The dancers were insecure and stiff at first, getting accustomed to the stage and their spacing. Lead ballerina Crystal Serrano, who later in the night displayed an aching lyricism in a very different solo part, here never quite settled into the composed but carefree sparkle that her role required. Her assured partner, Da’Von Doane, on the other hand, maintained an easy yet commanding presence, gobbling up space with every step.
The supporting dancers took care to fill out every measure and note of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn (the music was recorded) and occasionally accented step changes with crisp delineation. Yes, and more please.
The mood shifted for Ulysses Dove’s 1993 “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven,” an expressionistic memorial Dove made to honor beloved friends and family. The work begins with six dancers, costumed in simple yet striking white unitards, holding hands in a circle center stage. They repeatedly returned to this roundelay, reminiscent of a ritual folk dance, throughout the piece.
Dove matched the high emotion of the tolling bells and layered strings of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten with positions and expressions of passion and longing. The choreographer bestowed a healing power to each simple human touch and caress, and dancers folded protectively into their partners.
Ultimately, though, it was our fate to end alone, and the ballet dramatically closed with dancers in separate spotlights, tracing individual circles. The outstanding cast consisted of Lindsey Croop, Alison Stroming, Alicia Mae Holloway, Dylan Santos, Jorge Villarini and Anthony Santos.
The night ended with Darrell Grand Moultrie’s 2014 “Vessels,” a pulsing celebration of love and life set to music by Italian contemporary composer Ezio Bosso. This was about dancing of surging urgency, fleet running and staggered entrances onto the stage, creating the impression of continuous waves of movement.
There was Ingrid Silva soaring into a stag leap, her partner flawlessly catching her in midair. Villarini and Serrano convinced us they shared an undying passion as they melted into each other. The rest of the cast was equally unfettered, the perfect way to conclude that Dance Theatre of Harlem has turned that corner.
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