Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dance Theatre of Harlem brings its warmth and sparkle to Clowes Hall

Buzzing with anticipation as the show began late to accommodate late arrivals, a packed Clowes Hall Saturday night reflected the special aura Dance Theatre of Harlem carries with it.

What the audience was treated to over the next two hours displayed the classically rooted skill and energy that aroused interest from the company's origin in 1969 and first flourishing after the turn of the decade.

Lindsey Croop graduated cum laude from Butler.
My new girlfriend (now my wife) and I attended a well-attended performance by the emerging company in 1970, when DTH was engaged by the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in western Massachusetts. Since then, the company has had financial problems resulting in a serious hiatus (2004-2012), making its current personnel and repertoire feel new. The whole program on this tour stop, for example, consisted of pieces created for or adopted by DTH  in the past four years.

Saturday's performance opened with the newest, "Divertimento," a crisply executed, expansive work for three couples that amounted to an anthology of Russian ballet focused through the sensibility of choreographer and costume designer Elena Kunikova for these half-dozen DTH dancers. The Indianapolis audience immediately got a view of Lindsey Croop in her return to the campus from which she has a Butler degree in dance-arts administration and journalism.

The six dancers,  distinguished subtly to illustrate three aspects of characterization in classical ballet, worked well in solos and variations, with particular sparkle in episodes for the three men (in which a large gray cloth was introduced), followed by the three women. The spinning movement in the finale, with Mikhail Glinka's music reaching the height of effervescence, was exhilarating.

One of the recurrent circle formations in "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven."
At the somber end of the company's presentation here was the oldest piece, Ulysses Dove's "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven." A 1993 memorial to some of the choreographer's friends and family, the work, subtitled "Odes to Love and Loss," used memorial music — Arvo Pärt's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" — with special insight and patience.

 The choreography varied from angular, frontal postures suggesting ritualistic aspects of grief to more flowing, curvy movement indicating the emotional turmoil of loss. The white-clad dancers moved periodically into a clasped-hands circle, representing both the community of mourners and the felt community between the living and the beloved dead. Pärt's chime-drenched score, with its recurrent silences, was poignantly underlined by the intense interaction of the dancers, moving between the isolating and supportive aspects of bereavement.

A Philip Glass composition, undergirded by repetitive counting and given extra cohesiveness through a formal voice-over recitation describing a romantic park-bench idyll, flowered into something more expressive in Helen Pickett's "When Love," danced by Stephanie Rae Williams and Da'Von Doane.  I can see why Glass' style is attractive to choreographers: Its "beats" are clear, providing a stable basis to work against, and it is almost a blank slate expressively, allowing for maximum creative input that avoids vying with the recorded score. (Almost all the music on Saturday's program was too loud, by the way — the Glass in particular.)

Finishing the program was "Vessels," a four-part "cyclic journey" by Darrell Grand Moultrie, set to Ezio Bosso's minimalist-style music. This full-company ballet seemed a bit diffuse, frankly, though it certainly accomplished the purpose of providing a rousing display and a suitable conclusion.

The costumes had both lightness and brilliance, and much of the partnering reached the summit of virtuosity and coordination. Particularly fetching was one couple — Choong Hoon Lee and Ingrid Silva — who simply looked made to dance with each other. They were aptly a highlight of "Vessels"' final episode, "Abundance." And abundance was indeed an enduring impression to take away from this show.


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