Talented young dancers on the rise

Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

By Steve Sucato
News Contributing Reviewer

After an eight-year hiatus because of financial woes, Dance Theatre of Harlem returned to touring last year “leaner and meaner,” according to Virginia Johnson, the company’s artistic director and former prima ballerina.

The company looked the part Wednesday night in a mixed repertory program at the University at Buffalo‘s Center for the Arts.

The iconic company, founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and the late Karel Shook, is credited as being the first major black classical ballet company.

Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

DTH opened Wednesday with one of the first ballets the company began performing after its inception: George Balanchine’s black and white neo-classical masterwork, “Agon” (1957). “Agon”, the Greek word for “contest,” proved to be more of a contest between the choreography and the dancers than anything else.

Set to music by Stravinsky, the ballet takes its inspiration from French court dances, although the pointe ballet is really an abstract exercise in ballet perfectionism. Dense with angular movement, high leg extensions, pinpoint turns and rapid shifts of the body, the ballet is technically unforgiving. For some of company’s young dancers, it was a bit over their heads.

While the company is a ways off from perfecting “Agon”, its fervent effort made the performance respectable. Of note in it were the clean-lined Francis Lawrence and the elegant Chyrstyn Fentroy.

Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Next dancer Ashley Murphy wowed audiences in Christopher Huggins’ “In the Mirror of Her Mind” (2011), a piece about a woman reconciling her feelings about her past romantic relationships and set to moving music by Henryk Gorecki. The ballet had the fearless and fearsome Murphy tossed and flipped in daring lifts that elicited gasps from the audience as well as a rousing ovation at its end.

After a lovely pas de deux from the third act of “Swan Lake,” featuring an endearing Michaela DePrince, choreographer John Alleyne’s “Far But Close” (2012) looked at how love can break down barriers of the heart and heal broken spirits. Initially, the contemporary ballet for two couples had trouble connecting emotionally to Daniel Beaty’s beat poetry-esque text narrative it was set to. By work’s end though, the dancers had bridged that gap and the work resonated with emotion.

Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem
Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

The program concluded with Robert Garland’s funky “Return” (1999), set to the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Garland is DTH’s resident choreographer and a former principal dancer.

The work filled with attitude featured plenty of strutting, showing off of dancer’s skills and just plain letting it all hang out. It was a real crowd pleaser.

Essentially a new company, DTH lacks the star power of yesteryear, but Johnson has assembled a group of talented dancers and a vibrant repertory that has them well on their way regaining the dance troupe’s stature as a top-flight ballet company. As for future stars keep your eyes on: Fentroy, Murphy and the limelight stealing DePrince.

This review first appeared in The Buffalo News February 7, 2013. Copyright Steve Sucato.

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