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Dance Theatre of Harlem

‘Serenade,’ ‘Thaïs pas de Deux,’ ‘A Song for Dead Warriors,’

by Lauren Gallagher

March 31, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

It’s easy to think that Dance Theatre of Harlem’s (DTH) multifaceted nature ends with their heterogeneous company. Their broad repertoire is no secret. For their 7 week UK tour they brought works covering the gamut of 20th century dance, with opening night at Sadler’s Wells including Balanchine’s classic, “Serenade,” as well as Michael Smuin’s theatrical “A Song For Dead Warriors.” Yet, DTH most unique use of this breadth lies in their ability to celebrate the humanity of the individual dancer.

”Serenade,” choreographed by Balanchine for his ballet students in 1934, typically exudes the unattainable, aloofness of his neoclassical aesthetic. Too often, the desire for purity overrides personality, and the joy of dancing to Tchaikovsky’s more vivacious movements is often lost. Not so with Dance Theatre of Harlem. While capturing the serene drama of the striking first movement, with three rows of girls in their lengthy, pale blue tutus, the piece continued with a lively spirit and pleasant buoyancy, especially from soloist Paunika R. Jones. The corps jumped with rare athleticism and Rasta Thomas’ powerhouse leaps added to the spectacle. Although a powerful rendition, Tuesday’s opening night was indeed a nervous one with Andrea Long looking uncomfortable and stiff during her solos and partnering. Regardless, the company’s dominating presence still stole the show.

A curious choice in programming, Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Thaïs pas de deux” followed, and unfortunately suffered being the weak link in the chain. Melissa Morrissey’s veiled figure floated across the stage, the dainty and fragile partner to a hefty Kip Sturm and his clumsy partnering. While Morrissey strove to express genuine affection for her partner, Sturm’s self-absorbed persona treated her as a mere accessory.

The strength of DTH came back full force with Michael Smuin’s seldom seen “A Song For Dead Warriors.” A passionate story ballet in the style of musical theatre, “Dead Warriors” follows the plight of Native American Indians in the modern age, staged with extravagant, accurate costumes, a buffalo stampede, and visuals reflecting Native American history. A downstage scrim creates a dusty atmosphere, and in tandem with Charles Fox’s Copeland-like score, creates a cinematic ‘wild west’ aesthetic.

”Dead Warriors” used Duncan Cooper as the tragic hero, who finds Kellye A. Saunder’s heroine irresistible, and then loses her to the violent hands of raping and murdering policemen. His inevitable downfall occurs after he succumbs to his lust for revenge.

Saunder’s ardent vigour, alongside Cooper’s hot-blooded virility satisfied the demands of the dramatic roles, without sacrificing good dancing. Once more, the independent natures of individual dancers came through, not only in the ruinous love story, but also during the showcase of the company’s male talent with the Ancestral Chiefs, and the flirty sway of females during the Reservation dance.

While “Dead Warriors” seems weighty in subject matter, baroque and extravagant in presentation, and thus, overtly literal, the piece remains an excellent vehicle for DTH to exercise the versatility of the company’s physicality and dramatic sensibilities.

Edited by Jeff.

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