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Dance Theatre of Harlem

May 21, 2014

Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, When Love, Contested Space, Return
Reviewed May 21, 2014
NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

Contested Space, Photograph by Rachel Neville

Contested Space, Photograph by Rachel Neville

The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s eclectic program offers a well-rounded perspective of a company born 45 years ago out of African American dancer Arthur Mitchell’s despair following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With an aim to bring new opportunity to young Harlem dwellers, Mitchell began to train dancers in classical ballet.

His company’s message today is one of self-reliance, artistic relevance and individual responsibility. Revitalized last year under the directorship of Virginia Johnson, the new company’s 18 racially diverse artists are disciplined and vibrant.

This repertory program features two older works from the ‘90s framing a couple of pieces created in 2012, all by different choreographers.

Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, subtitled Odes to Love and Loss, is a deeply emotional and intelligent opener, by far my favourite. It was choreographed more than two decades ago by the late Ulysses Dove for the Royal Swedish Ballet as a “poetic monument” to people he had loved and lost.

There’s a solemn precise beauty in this nearly half-hour work that focuses on a sense of passing time. Set to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and the sound of striking clocks, six dancers in pure white costumes bring an ethereal quality to the stage with sharp quick movement, tight turns and backward-moving pas de bourrées. Björn Nilsson’s minimalist lighting design is a quiet accompaniment. And there’s an added sense of eeriness knowing Dove died only three years after premiering this work in 1993, at the age of 49.

When Love, a duet performed by the talented Jenelle Figgins and Da’von Doane and conceived by relatively new choreographer Helen Pickett, is an old old story of love, less than 10 minutes in length. It’s somewhat drowned out by the distracting music of Philip Glass and a high melodic voice counting out time against an unintelligible speaking voice. The lack of harmony between movement, sound and stage is disturbing.

Donald Byrd’s Contested Space features 10 muscular, focused dancers performing an odd juxtaposition of classical ballet, with the company’s signature chaine turns and pas de bourrées, and contemporary modern steps. Smoke billows onto the stage under cold spotlights giving a noisy underground urban feel. Peter D. Leonard’s lighting is hauntingly artful, but Byrd’s dance patterns are chaotic and awkward, resulting in a bewildering presentation.

The evening closes with Robert Garland’s 1999 Return, a work for the entire company performed to the upbeat music of the ilk of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. It’s a post-modern urban neoclassicist fusion of ballet technique and street rhythm, originally choreographed for Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 30th anniversary.

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From → Ballet

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