Dance Theatre of Harlem returned to the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia the first weekend in March as part of their 50th Anniversary tour and a year of commemoration in memory of legendary founder Arthur Mitchell, who died last year.
Coincidently, DTH’s performances in Philly fell on the same days that the other New York premier black company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, was performing at the Academy of Music across town. Both companies played to sell out houses with many Philly dance fans getting to both on successive days.
Philly native choreographer Robert Garland, told the DHT audience before the premiere of his ballet, that both companies paid a surprise visit to Joan Myers Brown at her Philadanco studios in West Philadelphia, Meyers-Brown’s school and company, Philadanco was where many dance artists from both companies started their professional careers. Myers-Brown was in attendance at the performance, just back from her own company performing that day at Longwood Gardens in suburban Chester County.
The concert opened with Garland’s ‘Nyman String Quartet, no. 2’ set to British composer Michael Nyman’s lush chamber work. The wending string lines have with some baroque DNA laced through and choreographer Garland is expert in characterizing the music itself. His choreography a fusion of ballet vocabulary- impeccable line, dynamic pointe work, air slicing jetes, tight ensemble unison, pirouettes, and arabesque variations, but Garland works in witty and unexpected has transitional phrasing with club dance moves and post-modern idioms.
Garland essays fluid choreographic dialogue of styles, both propulsive and inside Nyman’s music. Garland uses Nyman’s adagio movement to choreography a meditatively and arresting solo by principal dancer Da’Von Doane. The blending of many idioms, and with movement quotes- from Nijinsky’s angular Faun to a raised fist iconic gesture of black power.
Next was a work by African American choreographer Diane McIntyre, that had its premiere in 2016, a work inspired by women she writes in the program, black, brown and beige- who have been warriors for change in the world. At this performance Lindsay Croop, Yinet Fernandez and Daphne Lee danced this inspiring trio. McIntyre scores the ballet with African – American historic songs performed by the Spellman College Glee Club and original percussive music by Eli Fountain.
The women are first costumed in sheer black dance gowns, are subdued, fragmentary but expressive movement, as if in anguished mourning. Croop breaks away on her own path, she lets out the first vocalization, a primal scream as she steps powerfully on pointe and reaches skyward. Each of the women has solos, now dressed in vibrantly colored singlets and moving with uninhibited grace and fearlessness. McIntyre symbolically expressing the black women through history who triumphed over oppression and adversity.
Choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie’s 2017 ballet ‘Harlem On My Mind’ was scheduled for this performance but was switched at the last minute. One of Garland’s signature pieces ‘Return’ was performed instead. The ballet is set to music by the Godfather and the Queen of Soul- James Brown and Aretha Franklin, but a great concert finale nonetheless, with soul hits including ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ and ‘I Got the Feeling.’ Opening with the extended version of Brown’s ‘Popcorn’ which takes off with infectious funk exuberance right out of the gate. Garland combining modernist neoclassical ballet of black dance in America during the 60s & 70s.
Aretha Franklin’s ‘Call Me’ opening scene with soloist Crystal Serrano who moves between three potential male partners, as she humorous playing the field as Aretha coyly sings ‘I love you’ to each one. Serrano navigates these partners to dance with Dylan Santos after some intricate group lifts. Serrano and Santos smolder in this beguiling dance.
The finale of the Brown’s ‘Superbad’ for the full ensemble, Christopher Charles McDaniel’s breakout solo grooves drew audible delight and applause, not only for his James Brown glides, but his thrilling grande pirouettes and entrechat quatre.
Garland uses the original extended track of‘ Superbad’ he lets break into a Soul Train dance line. The full ensemble cuts lose with signature inventive Soul line moves from the day, with some updates from this generation of dancers that had the audience panting for more.
Former principal dancer Virginia Johnson, now DTH Artistic Director re-established the full Dance Theater of Harlem after an eight-year performance halt but keeping the school and touring ensembles going. Arthur Mitchell was then director emeritus, as Johnson piloted DTH’s full rebirth in 2012. Since then her vision and leadership technically and artistically on full display on their 50th Anniversary Tour, where the company will be performing different programs of company signature ballets, from Balanchine classics to newly commissioned repertory.
Johnson’s vision for the company is ballet forward, visionary contemporary dance and bringing the company’s technical and artistic excellence to a new generation. All of Johnson’s goals were present on the Annenberg performances in this performance.