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Dance Theatre of Harlem

Old School Exalts; New Disappoints

'Serenade' and 'St. Louis Woman:  A Blues Ballet'

by Andre Yew

January 4, 2004 -- Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California

Balanchine's "Serenade" 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 corps.

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 more red).


Edited by Holly Messitt

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