The audience started cheering when Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Paunika Jones began a sassy dance at the start of Robert Garland’s Return. Performed to five songs (James Brown and Aretha Franklin recordings) that gave the company a chance to strut and jive, this crowd pleaser demonstrated that company founder Arthur Mitchell has more than fulfilled his original intent. Today there is no question that black dancers can perform ballet with the best of them. And when the dancers are as strong and stylish as the current members of DTH, watching them is a pleasure unto itself.
The opening program of DTH’s current visit under the auspices of Cal Performances also demonstrated that Mitchell has other serious purposes in mind. Like Robert Joffrey, who constructed an evening’s program to offer variety and a lesson in movement to the audience, Mitchell built this program in a similar way. The opening piece, Viraa, which received its west coast premiere at this performance, was a neo-classical exercise in the Balanchine tradition. The second work, also a west coast premiere, told a dramatic story. The final piece, Return, was clearly designed to send the audience home wishing for more.
The other serious intent was the quest for new choreographic talent. Every ballet on this program was commissioned jointly by DTH and Arthur Mitchell. Mitchell is himself investing in his company’s future in a way that few artistic directors do. The choreographers represented included a teacher at the DTH school (Laveen Naidu, choreographer of Viraa) and the company’s ballet master, Augustus van Heerden, who choreographed Passion of the Blood based on Garc�a Lorca’s Blood Wedding. It is very fitting that the Board of Directors of DTH has paid homage to Mitchell by declaring that henceforth the company will be known as Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Although none of these three ballets is a great work, each has merits. Viraa is constructed with fluidity and a secure knowledge of the Balanchine vocabulary. Like its music, Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 2, which was composed in 1952, the ballet recalls Balanchine’s great works from the late 40s and early 50s, particularly The Four Temperaments and Concerto Barocco. These are models worth emulating. Choreographer Naidu moves the lead couple and the six supporting couples in a variety of combinations that keep interest alive. The lead woman, danced with intensity by Andrea Long, is the emotional center of the work. Initially hinting at doubt and worry, she emerges triumphant in the end as she is held aloft.
Passion of the Blood was the least successful work of the evening. Telling a complicated story in dance is a challenge, even to experienced choreographers. Van Heerden has synthesized the story of a duplicitous male, who abandons his wife and runs off with a bride. Both he and the groom die in a knife fight. Sadly, this dramatic ending delivers no punch, despite committed performances by the dancers. Part of the problem is the music, a cello concerto by Jes�s Villa-Rojo, with the interpolation of music by Tarrega and Albeniz for the wedding celebration. The fight scene was staged effectively, but when the final blows were dealt, the music just nattered away and provided no climax to support the dancers.
Garland’s Return, which was first presented in 1999, is about having fun, and the company tackles the piece with vivacity. There is a lot of flash and showmanship, with rapid turns and jumps. Sexual innuendo is an important part of the songs that are used, and Garland has captured it with wit. “Call Me,” in which Lenore Pavlakos entices three men, is a highlight. The closing number, “Superbad,” featured a gleeful Donald Williams. The dancers had a good time and their enthusiasm was shared by the audience.