Dance Theatre of Harlem kicked off its final season under the artistic directorship of Virginia Johnson with a superb program at City Center that surveyed the troupe’s history. The bill went in chronological order, beginning with Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante,” choreographed in 1956 and first danced by DTH in 1975. (Arthur Mitchell, DTH’s founder, was the first Black principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; Balanchine helped him to start his own company in 1969.)
“Allegro Brillante” featured the excellent pairing of Amanda Smith and Kouadio Davis. Their easy, joyful rapport gave this fiendishly difficult ballet a breezy feel. And the gorgeous Smith is such an ardent and musical dancer that she managed to make the canned music seem alive.
Christopher Wheeldon’s melancholy pas de deux “This Bitter Earth” (2012 for Vail Dance Festival, acquired by DTH in 2018) followed. Yinet Fernandez and Dylan Santos took a much softer approach than I’m used to seeing in this pas. They could use a little more daring in their off-balance promenades, but I enjoyed their gentler take. The dance read as more romantic and hopeful, less like a reeling, guttural cry. The score overlays Dinah Washington’s vocals on the Max Richter composition “On the Nature of Daylight,” and the dancers’ delicacy brought out Richter’s roseate chords.
Activism has been a pillar of DTH since its inception: Mitchell was galvanized to create the troupe after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s 2022 “Sounds of Hazel” represented this noble company mission. A documentary about its creation that preceded the ballet served partly as a primer on its subject, Hazel Scott—a once-famous Black pianist and multi-hyphenate entertainer in the ’30s and ’40s whose career was destroyed by McCarthyism. In the film, Erica “Twelve45” Blunt, the music director-composer dubbed Scott “the Beyoncé of fifty years ago.” Because of blacklisting, nobody has heard of her today.
Daphne Lee, incandescent in a shimmering golden gown, starred as Scott. She dazzled in a solo to a bubbly recording of Chopin waltzes played by Scott herself. It was funny when Rea-Fisher had Lee miming tickling the keys while bourréeing, since bourrées are the go-to ballet step for piano trills. And I loved the final segment in which Lee, acting as a bandleader, engaged in a call and response dance-off with a quartet of men. But Lee appeared only intermittently in that one fabulous dress (the wonderful costumes were by Mark Zappone).
The rest of the ballet used the large corps de ballet to set the scene for each phase of Scott’s life rather than engaging with her personal travails. A group dance to crashing waves and then polyrhythms referenced Scott’s early childhood in Trinidad. There were bowler hats, swing dancing, and jazz music to frame her professional prime during the Harlem Renaissance. And the women sported chic bows and danced to a hollow, music-box version of “La Vie en Rose” to represent Scott’s post-HUAC exile in Paris. Their resemblance to Stepford Wives provided the only whiff of adversity; you’d never know that Scott lost her career, suffered a nervous breakdown, and went through a divorce during this period. Though each scene change was deftly handled musically, choreographically, and sartorially, this ballet did not tell the story of Scott’s life so much as create mood boards for the places where she lived. Instead of a dramatic biopic about her sorrows and triumphs, it proved a pleasant travelogue with just a few hints of her struggles (a somber, fluid solo by the lovely Micah Bullard was as dark as it got). Perhaps the film beforehand was misleading and this piece was meant simply as a celebration of Scott’s talents and fortitude.
The show closed with William Forsythe’s “Blake Works IV (The Barre Project),” made on DTH and premiered by them in January in Philadelphia. “The Barre Project” emerged from the pandemic as an ode to the dancers who dutifully gave themselves barre wherever they could. Each instalment has been made on a different dancer or company: Tiler Peck (II), Boston Ballet (III), and DTH (IV). All three consist mainly of solos at a ballet barre at the center of the stage, and all exclusively use the music of James Blake. (Forsythe made “Blake Works I” on the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, also to a Blake soundtrack.) I’ve seen a few of these Blake barre ballets now, and I like them. They are certainly the only sexy and fierce dances to come out of the Covid period. Forsythe’s conflation of barre work and pole dancing is brilliant, as is the way his flamelike tendus and pas de chevals resemble tango footwork when the dancers lean into their barre—their partner. As we move farther away from the pandemic’s peak, the series has involved more human-to-human partnering. In fact, “Blake Works IV” opened with a long pas de deux for Lindsey Donnell and Derrick Brockington that never once utilized the barre. And Fernandez came out in a fringe number (the pleasing, purple costumes were by Forsythe and Katy A. Freeman) for a brief duet that was pure ballroom dancing.
This is the first installment without a film section, too, so the project is clearly evolving. But still, in keeping with the original social-distancing parameters, solos made up the meat of the ballet, beginning with a knockout for Smith—the best dancer I’ve seen in these yet. Kamala Saara was also good in a slow movement. Really, the entire cast of fifteen looked wonderful. Here they demonstrated an attack that was sometimes missing from the “Allegro Brillante” corps at the top of the night. But no matter how well danced, so many solos to the same musical artist gets a tad monotonous. Thus it was thrilling when the dancers gathered for a rousing unison finale—rather like that first dinner party back after the vaccines.
Virginia Johnson capably steered the company through Covid, just as she masterfully resurrected it after an eight-year hiatus, from 2004 to 2012, at the start of her tenure. She can be proud to hand Dance Theatre of Harlem over to DTH resident choreographer, Robert Garland, in top form. Well, she can be proud of more than that! Her remarkable career includes 28 years as a star dancer with the troupe (she was a founding member). She was also the founding editor-in-chief at Pointe Magazine, and she continues to be a leading voice in the Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Black People in Ballet. Dance Theater of Harlem’s stellar showing on opening night is just another feather in her cap.