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A Dancer's Story

The Dance Theatre of Harlem returned to City Center this week for the first time under the leadership of Robert Garland, a former company dancer, school director, and resident choreographer. This was the launch of an exciting new beginning, though the troupe was simultaneously celebrating its past. This year marks company’s 55th anniversary as well as what would be the 90th birthday of founder Arthur Mitchell, who passed away in 2018. Mitchell, the first Black principal in a major American dance company (the New York City Ballet), sought totake young people off the streets and get them involved in the arts”—as Zita Allen quotes in a terrific program article. For his artistic directorial debut, Garland brought a well-curated quartet of works that made for a balanced and uplifting evening—the kind of show that leaves you smiling when you exit. Though his own choreographic entry was the slightest in the lineup, it’s clear that Garland understands Mitchell’s lofty, activist mission   

Performance

Dance Theatre of Harlem: “Nyman String Quartet #2” by Robert Garland / “Pas de Dix” by George Balanchine / “Blake Works IV” by William Forsythe

Place

New York City Center, New York, NY, April 11, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

Derek Brockington and Lindsey Donnell in “Blake Works IV (The Barre Project)” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Theik Smith

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The program began with Garland’s “Nyman String Quartet No. 2,” which premiered in 2019 and was dedicated to Mitchell as well as Olympian track star John Wesley Carlos—two men who stood up for their people and enriched their communities. “Nyman No. 2” was a structurally solid ballet, though it lacked punch. Michael Nyman’s driving score set the tone, and Garland kept his cast chugging along to it with an even-keeled combination of classical ballet steps as well as popular dance moves. Garland erred on the side of simplicity. There were too many long sequences of step-tap side-to-side. Every now and then there were some arresting Balanchine quotes—like the spidery hitch kicks from Choleric in “The Four Temperaments”—but mostly the steps were too basic and repetitive, whether they were jazzy or balletic. This made the dancers appear less skilled than they were. They could handle much more, and they did as the evening went on.  

Allen’s essay quoted Mitchell from a 1974 London Times interview: “We don’t want people to think of us as a black ballet company. Of course, we are black, and because we are the first, that is the point of interest that gets people into the theatre. But after watching, even just for three minutes, I hope you forget that. What matters is not the color of the skin, but whether a dancer is a good dancer or not.” Mitchell would be delighted today, because his troupe is currently filled with excellent dancers. After the abecedarian “Nyman” was over, it became apparent that this was a very clutch group of performers. They hit all their trickiest moves, joyfully.  And the second piece on the program starred Amanda Smith, who is one of the finest dancers working in New York City right now.   

Robert Bondara’s “Take me With You,” was a wonderful vehicle for Smith and Elias Re. This slick, athletic pas de deux was set to Radiohead’s “Reckoner.” It is very hard to pull off the pairing of popular music with ballet, but Bondara proved himself to be a member of the very small club of choreographers who can manage it, along with Kyle Abraham, Twyla Tharp (sometimes) and William Forsythe—the latter’s facility in that area was demonstrated later in the show. Bondara also designed the lighting and the chic costumes: unisex white button-down shirts with mini black shorts. Smith and Re showed off their great lines and danced with soul, echoing but not overselling Thom Yorke’s wistful vocals.  

David Wright, Kouadio Davis and Micah Bullard in “Nyman String Quartet No. 2” by Robert Garland. Photograph by Steven Pisano

In an invigorating contrast, the company premiere of Balanchine’s starkly classical “Pas de Dix” followed after a quick pause. Former NYCB principal Kyra Nichols set this vault dance, which is an abstraction of Petipa’s Act III “Raymonda ”choreography. Balanchine arranged it for Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky in 1955. In 1973, Balanchine cannibalized “Pas de Dix” for the more lavish and interesting “Cortège Hongrois,” and “Pas de Dix” is not seen much anymore.  (What are linear stage crossings in “Pas de Dix” are manèges in “Cortège,” unison duets are turned into more intricate quartets, and plain pas de bourrées are done en tournant.) But though “Pas de Dix” is straightforward, it is not exactly easy. This was a wise pick by Garland, for “Pas de Dix” is a great option for smaller troupes who want to flaunt their classical chops. DTH has a roster of 20, “Cortège” requires 36 dancers. Also, its flatness demands personality and characterization, which the DTH dancers have in spades.  

In their lovely amber tutus and tunics, by Pamela Allen-Cummings, the “Pas de Dix” dancers gave a clear and strong account of the steps, and they grinned personably while doing so. Kamala Saara and Kouadio Davis confidently led the piece. The presentational aspect of the ballet pulled Davis out of his run-on-sentence tendencies. And the talented Saara gave a glamorous account of the famous hand-slap variation, one of ballet’s all-time great solos for its ability to alter the atmosphere of a theater. Saara was cool and polished, creating her own mysterious world. Alexandra Rene Jones also elevated her square solo through her stylish epaulement.   

Kamala Saara in “Pas de Dix” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Jeff Cravotta

The show concluded with Forsythe’s “Blake Works IV,” which was made on the troupe in 2023. This ballet is an installment in Forsythe’s Barre Project series, a set of works that utilize a ballet barre centerstage as well as a James Blake score. Just like last year, the dancers knocked this dance out of the park. Alexandra Hutchinson and Derek Brockington had stellar moments, and Smith impressively tossed off a double tour while filling in last-minute for Lucas Castro.  

This ballet is fun and clever, as is Forsythe’s way. His ability to turn ho-hum barre steps like flick-flacks into foreplay is awesome. Also, I was able to focus more on his pairings of lyrics and steps on this second viewing, and some of his choices were hilarious. It doesn’t get any funnier than setting the “Lullaby for My Insomniac” lines “You’ll let go/And you’ll forget where you are” to barre work. Story of every dancer’s life.              

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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