Penn Live Arts’ Dance Theatre of Harlem program this past weekend at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center braided together an historical, social, racial, cultural, and artistic event. The relationship between the late Dance Theatre of Harlem’s founder, African American dancer Arthur Mitchell (d. 2018) and his mentor and benefactor, choreographer George Balanchine covers all those topics, with a Philadelphia dance community slant that was not lost on the audience.
First, a bit of history. Balanchine invited Mitchell to New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet in 1955, becoming its first Black principal dancer in 1962. As many know, Balanchine cast Mitchell in New York City Ballet’s world premiere of “Agon,” his first “Black and White” ballet, which Stravinsky scored. Pairing him in the famous duet with a white Southern woman, Diana Adams, was a courageous act during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, and all three braved it out—not always to welcoming audiences. Soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mitchell would go on to found Dance Theatre of Harlem with Balanchine’s support.
The Russian-born Balanchine also played a leading hand in the late Barbara Weisberger’s founding of Pennsylvania (now Philadelphia) Ballet in the early ‘60s, which, in turn, shaped Philadelphia audience’s appreciation of his work.
DTH’s inclusion of his “Allegro Brillante” may have been a nod to these connections, making for the weekend’s packed houses. But the program appeared between MLK’s holiday and Black History month, so the audiences were nicely mixed (and beautifully dressed!). By the way, NYCB first performed it in 1956 (with Mitchell in the cast,) and many times since, just over the same weekend at Lincoln Center, so it’s having its moment again.
One of its first moments in Philadelphia was in the early ‘70s when Randy Swartz, Annenberg’s long time dance impresario emeritus (my honorific) brought DTH to Walnut Street Theater. Virginia Johnson, who’d been a founding member of the company with Mitchell, is now its outgoing artistic director. She starred in the lead role of “Allegro” in that performance.
Johnson revivified DTH’s after a years-long hiatus, as artistic director since 2009. She sat on the dais for Friday night’s pre-curtain talk with choreographer, William Forsythe. His “Blake Works IV (The Barre Project)” would have its world premiere on her company. After retiring from her dance career, Johnson spent several years as editor of Pointe Magazine. Asked what she planned on doing after leaving this third career, she said she was “looking forward to going back to being an artist.”
However gorgeously the DTH dancers performed this “Allegro,” it was the least appealing work on the program for me. As a musical term, allegro brillante means “fast, quick and bright” but the recording sounded as if it had been accelerated even faster and perhaps some chords were altered making it sound jazzy at times. I had the sensation I was listening to a scratchy old 78. In turn, this made some of the intricate and rapid footwork look uncontrollable at times. While the ballerinas in the five couples had no trouble matching the tempo with their nimble footwork en pointe, a couple of the male dancers seemed to skip beats here and there.
The men, however, excelled in grande allegro combinations with entrechat quatres. Derek Brockington, Lucas Castro, and Kouadio Davis had especially high ballon in all their jetés, as did the women. The stars of the shows I saw were Amanda Smith on Friday and Ingrid Silva on Saturday. Christopher Charles McDaniel, partnered each of them with aplomb. Smith and Silva each had piquant pointe work, expressive hands and were lithe and fearless in their leaps and fishdives. They all held fast to Balanchine’s mathematical patterning, beautiful as a formal garden changing in seasons.
Helen Pickett’s “When Love” has been on DTH’s repertoire since 2012. Daphne Lee and Davis took it Friday night, and Amanda Smith and David Wright on Saturday afternoon. Davis was a smoldering lover waiting for Lee’s cues before caressing her. Wright was more forward, running his hands up Smith’s waiting thighs before flipping her dress up. Both wore red designed by Charles Heightchew. The women killed it with high kicks straight as arrows, which their partners grasped at the ankles to point them down to the floor like spears. The soundscape began with a tick tock of numbers—time escaping. A very deep and overbearing bass voice began reciting Philip Glass’s text from “Einstein on the Beach – Knee Play 5” “The day with its cares and perplexities is ended and the night is now upon us…” A heavenly text, brutally narrated. Pickett, an 11-year member of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, prettily informed this petite Valentine with his improvisational technique.
Forsythe offered another Valentine. The world premiere of his “Blake Works IV (The Barre Project,)” was a sweet reminder of what pure ballet looks like when danced by superstars like DTH’s company. The project began on Zoom early during pandemic lockdown.
Forsythe cleverly began the piece with his take of an exquisite duet at the barre with Brockington and Lindsey Donnell, through Smith’s solo, followed in turn by Santos, Lee, Wright, and Hutchinson striding up to the barre as we saw a dizzying array of jawdropping personal styles. Brockington and Micah Bullard topped it off, swizzling side by side on Friday and Davis and McDaniel repeated on Saturday. Katy A. Freeman and Forsythe designed the gorgeous violet velvet leotards with flirty little spangled wrap skirts added for the women for the finale. The most romantic of the selections of British composer James Blake’s songs “Lullaby for My Insomniac” would have put anyone in the mood for love.
The other big crowd pleaser of the evening, Robert Garland’s “Higher Ground,” featured Stevie Wonder’s songs and I’m sure many of us could still have made the club dance moves we once did to them. Garland plaited them flawlessly into the joyfully executed Africanist and classical ballet moves, though the political and social themes of the songs were never lost. From “Look Around” to “Village Ghetto Land,” my eyes rarely strayed from Bullard and Smith, who each danced with fearless abandon. The last songs, “Saturn” and “Higher Ground” bring us back to “our natural high.” Just living and keepin’ on trying. They’ll be touring in the U.S. and Canada through May.