Honoring History, Cultivating the Contemporary – The Brooklyn Rail

New York City Centre
Dance Theater of Harlem
April 11-14, 2024
New York

Dance Theater of Harlem, under the leadership of new Artistic Director Robert Garland, is certainly looking toward the future. But the question is how do you remain relevant to 20th century icons like George Balanchine as you move forward? In this programme, Balanchine’s suite seemed like a relic combined with some new contemporary pieces, yet its legacy demands recognition as an essential part of the ensemble’s history.

To the wide-ranging programme, William Forsyth contributed Blake’s Works IV (Breakthrough Project) From 2023, it is part of an ongoing series set to music by James Blake. Forsythe’s ballets tend towards the more classical end of his work, ranging from unique performance pieces to provocative art installations and objects. Here he shows his genius in taking the essential element of learning to dance – barre – and putting it center stage. The twelve dancers, dressed in plum velor leotards, take primitive barbell exercises to the extreme, with daring moves that only a student might attempt while the teacher isn’t looking. But the work highlights the bar as an aid to learning, a physical support for testing balance and gaining confidence, and a reassuring presence as the dancer’s “home” in the studio.

The pair starts away from the bar, lit from above to highlight the muscles. Each dancer extends his arm and clasps his hands: a gesture that is repeated between bold leg passes and explosive leaps. The duo’s movements are sensual but not nostalgic. A series of solos at the bar mix with those downstairs, with touches of humor throughout – luscious hops up to the bar, funky skips, a faint hand punctuating the pirouettes. The cast reunites at the end, with snippets of social dancing and spread hands moving side by side, Broadway style. The intelligent Forsyth is, after all, an artist.

While we’re discussing splendor, garland Back Resulted in exit from the program. This 1999 production is an exciting mix of strict ballet (with women on pointe) and funk/soul. Drawing from a catalog of hits from hitmakers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin, the dancers move seamlessly between the two styles – no easy task. Bits of classic pop dance vernacular, and quotes from James Brown’s crazy moves, intersperse the four sections. It is difficult to imagine this famous work of Garland being performed so impressively by many other companies.

Before Radiohead’s “Reckoner” began, Amanda Smith came on stage, clapping along to the rhythm of Robert Bondara’s duet. take me with you (2024). Elias Rey joins her in some complex and imaginative partnership segments. With his support, she walks away. He grabs her bent foot and lowers it to the ground. Whether it’s anger or affection that drives them, or both, their passion burns as they literally drum on his chest and come out as they come in, clapping in rhythm. Bondara, ballet director of the Poznań Opera Ballet in Poland, choreographs in an elegant, modern ballet style that complements Forsythe.

The question of Balanchine’s place in the DTH repertory remains. New York City Ballet director Arthur Mitchell founded the company with Karel Schock in 1969, and Balanchine gave Mitchell the rights to several of his ballets. But Balanchine reference like Pas de dex, with its oddly colored ocher jackets and conspicuous miniskirts, and the old recording of Alexander Glazunov’s music, combine to make the ballet seem sixty-nine years older. While City Center served as Balanchine’s home before Lincoln Center, the audience sits very close to the stage for this dance, or perhaps we’re just used to a certain distance from the dancers. Perhaps choosing another Balanchine repertory would be better suited to a program like this, with large contemporary entries that don’t feel like museum pieces. The strong connection between DTH and Balanchine provides another case study in how to preserve a legacy while evolving into the future.

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