Kouadio Davis and Alexandra Hutchinson in “Higher Ground.” Photograph by Theik Smith

Higher Ground

Dance Theatre of Harlem at City Center Festival

Dance Theatre of Harlem: “Passage” / “Balamouk” / “Higher Ground”
City Center, New York, NY, April 5, 2022
Cecilia Whalen

There was only a soft glow of moonlight as twelve-foot-tall waves rolled ominously onto the stage. The dancers stacked in pyramid pushed in gently, then sloped down as the woman who stood up completely straight on the men’s shoulders dove down headfirst. Aided by the men who held her feet and each hand, she rose back up, erect, then repeated it again, travelling the space like a commanding sea. This is the compelling opening of Claudia Schreier’s “Passage,” which Dance Theatre of Harlem premiered at New York City Center, concluding the first-ever City Center Dance Festival, April 5-10.

“Passage” was commissioned by DTH in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the United States. It is a totally engrossing piece that is striking in both its narrative specificity and its abstraction. It features a protagonist—this evening a dexterous and passionate Anthony Santos—who is captured, detained, and seemingly defeated, at one point collapsing to the ground, though ultimately revived by fellow dancers. At one point, Santos danced with another male dancer in a pas de deux, partnering vulnerably though with incredible strength as a single horn serenaded (Rachel Drehmann played the horn as part of a live octet which performed Jessie Montgomery’s commissioned score). Though at times dramatic (particularly in the moments centering Santos), the piece is not somber. It has moments of lovely and affectionate partnering and allegro group sections: “It aims to speak to the strength of our people; the unstoppable spirit required to survive and thrive, regardless of circumstances,” Schreier said in an earlier interview with Fjord.

Dance Theatre of Harlem in “Passage” by Claudia Schreier. Photograph by Theik Smith

Most interesting, however, is not necessarily Schreier’s portrayal of people (though the character moments certainly make their impact), but her treatment of the water, and the idea of the ocean. Slavery and the slave trade by way of the Middle Passage are human phenomenon: The calculated subjugation, exploitation, and abuse of Africans by white Americans and Europeans. But the sea played an essential role. It is estimated that nearly two million Africans died while aboard slave ships. Many drowned, and for those who died from other conditions brought upon by the horrors of the ship, their bodies were often released into the ocean. Could the ocean have then, if through death, represented some sort of freedom to the enslaved? By ship was the only possible way to transport human cargo, and without the Middle Passage, the enslavement and transportation of Africans would not have been possible. Is the ocean, then, culpable? The power of “Passage” lies in Schreier’s images of the water—motifs of undulating arms and torsos, incredible gravity-defying lifts, a tide-like push and pull of spacial patterns—and we find ourselves considering this natural wonder in a new light.   

Dance Theatre of Harlem in “Balamouk” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

Following “Passage” was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s colorful and lively new piece, “Balamouk” to exciting klezmer music performed live by the Grammy-winning Klezmatics. The piece featured the dazzling Ingrid Silva who was carried around on a throne of male dancers displaying elegance and sass.

Robert Garland’s long-awaited “Higher Ground” opened the program. “Higher Ground” is danced to the music of Stevie Wonder, a selection of songs pulled from the artist’s work of the 1970s, more specifically, his music responding to racial injustice. Garland’s interpretation of and relationship to this music in is inseparable. At times fed up, such as in “You Haven’t Done Nothin,’” the dancers address the audience with frontal, confrontational movement; at times despairing, like in “Saturn,” where Wonder says he’s “going back to Saturn where people live to be two hundred and five” and “don’t fight our wars the way you do,” a beautiful couple dances dream-like in pas de deux. In “Village Ghetto Land,” Wonder’s voice describing poverty-stricken neighborhoods is juxtaposed with baroque-sounding strings. Garland mirrors this ironic effect with a prim soloist, Amanda Smith (who had a stand-out presence throughout the entire evening), who dances classical steps with precision and a bright smile while the ensemble dances knowingly behind her. She alternates between ballerina perfection and sudden bouts of unbearable pain, in which her face distorts into expressions of horror and grief and she tumbles around the stage. “Children play with rusted cars/ Sores cover their hands,” Wonder sings. “Some folks say that we should be/ Glad for what we have. Tell me, would you be happy/ In Village Ghetto Land?”

Anthony Santos and Micah Bullard in “Higher Ground” by Robert Garland. Photograph by Theik Smith

“Higher Ground” ends on a lighter note, with an energetic movement to the title song. Using a mix of classical ballet and social dance grooves to match Wonder’s funk throughout the whole work, this last section allows the dancers to celebrate the melding of these styles. They enjoy themselves and each other, and the audience does, too. We might be quick to say that Garland’s piece ends optimistically, as his choreography at the end is mostly joyful. The song “Higher Ground,” though, is not entirely optimistic, at least not when it comes to human beings. Wonder sings that “he’ll keep on reaching ’til he reaches his highest ground,” but he also says that “God is gonna show you highest ground/ He’s the only friend you’ll have around/ ‘Cause the rest of the world will bring you down.” The song is also made up of a string of phrases telling human beings to “keep on” with their ways, both good and bad (”lovers keep on loving” but also “powers keep on lying while your people keep on dying”), because “it won’t be too long.” The song is empowering for the individual who is determined to reach the highest ground. It can also be heard as a prophetic cry for the end of the world and the coming of judgement.