Subscribe to the monthly for free!
Theatre of Harlem
Old School Exalts;
'St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet'
by Andre Yew
January 4, 2004 --
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California
starts off Dance Theatre of Harlem's three Southern California performances,
and as the curtain rises on the array of luminous blue-green-clad dancers,
the audience gasps at the sight --- even before a single movement, "Serenade"
had already captured us. I'd never seen the piece before and was very
excited to see it for the first time in person after hearing so many positive
comments about it, including being called the greatest ballet in existence.
High expectations are rarely fulfilled and often lead to disappointment,
but "Serenade" exceeded my expectations. Is it the greatest
ballet ever? I don't know, but it is a remarkable piece of work especially
considering its 1934 year of origin. There's nothing dated about it, and
much current choreography (including unfortunately its companion piece
in this performance) would look awkward and clumsy next to it, yet it's
clear where "Serenade" came from, and it's clear that it's a
step (or two) forward from there (check out that use of the floor!). Highlights
for me include its mature and confident style that belies its origin as
a student piece and as an early Balanchine work, its architectural sense
in which motifs such as the hand shielding the face reappear throughout
reiterating and building its structure, its symbiotic relationship between
the music and the movement that makes you believe that neither could exist
without the other, and its enigmatic, evocative, poetic images (is the
last scene a ship sailing off, and where to, and with whom?).
In the dancing, however,
I found the performance uneven: the corps' hands, arms, and epaulement
were non-uniform with the port de bras, and ther hands were also somewhat
hard and brittle. The weaving sequences and certain line-ups were sloppy
and unfortunately fidgety as if the dancers weren't quite standing in
their right spots. In contrast, when the Kirov danced "Emeralds,"
which has extensive weaving sequences, corps work was very smooth and
effortless. The corps fared much better, however, on the allegro portions,
with their small jumps especially light, and done with a consistent unified
attack. The initial parallel-to-first-position transition was a bit lost
on me due to some distracting noises from the stage.
The soloists, Andrea Long, Paunika Jones, Tai Jimenez, Rasta Thomas, and
Ramon Thielen, with one notable exception, had approximately the same
performance style (both good and bad) as the corps. I found Long's movement
to be more angular than that of the corps and her partner Thomas, which
made it disconcerting, but perhaps that was the intended effect. Again,
comparing them to the Kirov, Diana Vishneva's "Rubies" ballerina
and Uliana Lopatkina's "Diamonds" ballerina, though far separated
from the Kirov corps in technical capability and movement, obviously came
from the same place as the corps and from the same movement philosophy.
With DTH, the soloist movement seems a bit detached and alienated from
The one notable exception was Rasta Thomas whose open chest, soft arms
and head movements, and a beautiful soft line made him stick out from
the other dancers. His expressive movement, especially in how his chest
related to his partner, and, if this is imaginable, his cabrioles to the
rear, made him a joy to watch. I didn't know who he was during the performance,
but quickly went to the program after "Serenade" to find out.
I hope to see him dance more and to follow his development as a dancer.
The second half of the program was the hour-long Michael Smuin "St.
Louis Woman," and it didn't work for me. The way it told its story
was inconsistent, going into explicit detail for some parts (the gunshots)
while remaining inexplicably ambiguous about other things (the various
relationships and their whys and wherefores) which made the climatic scene
ineffectual, because we don't know why such a thing would happen, or the
circumstances that would motivate such feelings. Compare for example Matthew
Bourne's "Swan Lake" where the last scenes of the last two acts
are much more impressive and affecting because we know his characters
that much more.
The dancing is technically pretty, but somewhat superficial since it doesn't
appear to serve the story. The soloists ranged from adequate to superb.
Kellye A. Saunders was especially effective and sympathetic as Bigelow's
naive girlfriend Lila, while Akua Parker made us believe that her Della
Green could get any man she wanted. Kip Sturm was imposing and technically
fine as Bigelow the gangster, while Duncan Cooper struggled with Little
Augie's bravura dancing. The highlights for me were Taurean Green's Barney
and Naimah Willoughby's Butterfly, his partner. Full of spunk and energy,
they both energized the stage with their dancing.
Dacing the incongrously-dressed Death was Ramon Thielen who did a good
job with Death's apparently necessary virtuosic dancing. It still couldn't
overcome Death's Chipendale dancer wardrobe of short shorts, long tails
(with a shirtless bare chest), and top hat.
Stage and costume design for "St. Louis Woman" was wonderfully
cartoonish with bright primaries and bold patterns filling unparallel
lines and exaggerated features (think of "Elite Syncopations"
except much looser clothing, cartoony, non-square lines and angles, and
Edited by Holly Messitt
Please join the discussion
in our forum.