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Dance Theatre of Harlem

"New Bach," "Dialogues," "Concerto in F"

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA

January 25, 2002
by Toba Singer


Empty of sets, the opening piece, Robert Garland's New Bach fills the stage instead with one woman, Caroline Rocher, and four men who entice the audience with an occasional shimmy, that looks at first like a bump in the road, in the otherwise strictly classical choreography. "Better take those dancers in and get that shimmy checked before you take them on the road," you're thinking.

But then you find that it grows on you. It's like someone has stirred the odd ingredient into a perfectly homogenous batter. It takes awhile for the elements to accept one another. Those first shimmies seem a little forced and artificial, but as the piece moves into deeper and deeper swirls of accommodation, there is a complex of moods, where the jazz teases out the classical, and the classical reciprocates. Rocher plays her coryphˇes with commanding concentration. Roles are then reversed in the second segment of the first movement, Allegro Moderato, and Eric Underwood has four ladeez and he's the only mahn. Much of the choreography is danced across the diagonals of the stage, and so the jazz accents become more elaborate and even decorative. Underwood's solo finds its apex in a series of perfect pirouettes (more than seven). Up to that point, unlike Rocher, his relationship with the audience is scant: It's all he can do to keep the women on his team. Once he has shown his mastery, however, he belongs to his audience, and leads the company in a bellows-like legato in the Andante movement that follows. The dancers have moved from warm to hot as the bent-knee sautés find their accent in jazzy shoulder rotations, spun out by a quartet of women in double time and with great vitality.

"Can you do this with Bach?" my companion wonders out loud. Yes, you can!

Dialogues, by Glen Tetley, finds dancers in stark, glossy white costumes, against a sylvan setting, lit in a soft yellow. This is the forest primeval. In it, we find Kellye S. Saunders, partnered exquisitely by Donald Williams-- she with her fetching line, and he with his godly ports de bras. Godliness ends right there: this is a pagan experience, with primal man and primal woman stretching all their fortitudes into attitudes in an effort to work it all out. It never does work out between men and women, and that's the tension that keeps the pulleys in motion in this piece. Saunders displays a statuesque, held energy, released at her diktat, and slowed to a simmer when it suits the moment. As complementary as the partnering is in Cadenza e Variante, in Scherzo Allucinante, Tanya Wideman-Davis seems to have great difficulty trusting her partner, Kip Sturm, whose energy is heavy and cumbersome, his placement disjointed, where she would want to spring from her center if she had a more centered partner.

In the fourth movement, Toccata Concertata, we see a clean, yet urgent duet by Andrea Long and James Washington, preceded by a strong man's solo that puts all the issues back out there. A series of triplet turns brings the ensemble together liked perfectly timed pistons firing off in an alternating series, as homeostasis returns to the woodlands.

Billy Wilson's Concerto in F lifts the audience out of the sludge and onto the concrete sidewalks of the upper West Side of New York City. With Gershwin's music, and Chenault Spence's lighting carrying the dancers from dawn through dusk, and the quintessential upper-Broadway fuchsia/violet/red costumes and city backdrop by Carl Michel, it isn't hard to let yourself be transported. Ikolo Griffin, returns in triumph to the Bay Area, as a shining jewel in this company. I overheard someone whisper, "Only Arthur Mitchell could convince Ikolo to cut his hair." Good! Now we can see his boyish, dazzling, can-do countenance, as he gives us a gallantly gestured, clean and stage-ruling performance. With Tai Jimenez, whose character work is every bit as tasty as Griffin's, it gets more and more playful. The men's chorus is like watching one of those astoundingly powerful men's classes, with no holds barred, giving the piece its true street grit. What follows is a trip around the world, in which every facet of Black dance in its modern idiom is shown, from hip-hop to Latin, to Yoruba, all whirled into a singular jazz theme.

In Andante con Molto, Eric Underwood and Antonio Douthit play out the familiar street scene of two guys trying to score with the passerby "fox," Dionne Figgins. This is male bonding, in which she is simply the preything. The men stretch out of the pavement like man arising from the muck at the dawn of time, mirroring each other in their redundant rituals. They slide with the music into the urban day. The footwork is outstanding, but it doesn't matter, because eventually she's gone and they're back to flexing and stretching, and selling each other wolf tickets. This is a great stagey vehicle for a small company. There's lots of space for lots of ballon in the men's grand jetes. The work on the diagonals opens the dimensions of the stage. Nobody is showcased as other small, successful companies insist on doing. It's not necessary. Most of the individual dancers are unmistakably and bountifully talented, and it shows without the studied, self-indulgent underscoring that in other small companies becomes an irresistible conceit.

DTH is delightful!

 

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Edited by Mary Ellen.


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