After a nine-year hiatus due to financial woes, this child of the civil rights movement and Balanchine neoclassicism is back – and eager to prove itself on all sorts of fronts. Before an elated, splendidly attired opening night crowd at the Jazz at Lincoln Center theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem 2.0 (touring Florida, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington DC later this spring) was intent on establishing its ballet cred and its street cred, its grounding in classicism and in black experience. The result was a hodgepodge – and a long night.
It began with the neoclassicism: Agon, which Balanchine made on Arthur Mitchell in 1957, 12 years before the star dancer founded the Harlem troupe. In its musical knottiness, insouciant spirit and steps twisted and pulled like taffy, the Stravinsky ballet requires a steady diet of Balanchine modernism to master. These highly professional dancers approached it with understandable bewilderment.
The 18-member troupe was more comfortable with the contemporary work. The dance-play Far But Close, to a score by New Age classical composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, asks “how broken people love each other”. Choreographer John Alleyne’s methods do not lend themselves to an answer: the Caribbean-Canadian has a lovely way of punctuating the unspooling of floor-skimming steps with almost imperceptible stop-motion freezes. So, for better or worse, the choreography did not go head-to- head with Daniel Beaty’s heavy-handed script, in which a man tries to win over his “Little Black Girl” by ranting about her pain (over everything from her daddy to the Middle Passage).
Resident choreographer Robert Garland’s Return, a medley to Aretha Franklin and James Brown, is not as rich as the music nor as charming as his work can be. (The second programme features another Garland ballet.) But the ensemble piece is good-natured in reducing both ballet and social dance to silly adornment.
What put me most at ease ab
out the company’s future under Virginia Johnson were the women: sumptuous Gabrielle Salvatto, sweetly virtuosic Michaela DePrince, dispassionate yet expansive Chyrstyn Fentroy, and Ashley Murphy, spiky and alert in Agon, slippery and aloof in Far But Close, sexy and elegant everywhere.